Seventh Circuit Upholds Summary Judgment for Construction Contractors, Finding No Duty Owed to Plaintiff

This blog post was written by summer associate Ryan J. Chancellor. A supervising partner also contributed to the post.

In Jeffords, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the United States District Court for the Northern District of Indiana’s order granting summary judgment to the defendants. It found no duty of care could be established between the defendants and Jeffords.

Plaintiff Donald Jeffords was injured when he fell off of a crane while working as a crane operator on an oil refinery construction project. Jeffords v. BP Prod. N. Am. Inc., 963 F.3d 658, 660-61 (7th Cir. 2020). BP Products North America (BP) owned and operated the oil refinery. Jeffords, 963 F.3d at 660. BP contracted with Fluor Constructors International to perform engineering, procurement, and construction management services. Id. Both Fluor and BP entered into separate contracts with MCI Industrial to perform construction at the oil refinery. Id. Central Rent-a-Crane employed Jeffords and was contracted separately by BP to operate the cranes. Id.  Central was not named as a defendant and had no contractual relationship with Fluor or MCI. Id.

Jeffords sued BP, Flour, and MCI for negligence, claiming that each defendant breached their duty of care to him.  Jeffords passed away while the suit was pending, and the case was continued by his estate.  Defendants moved for summary judgment, and the district court granted those motions, holding that Defendants did not owe Jeffords a duty of care.  Plaintiff appealed.

“Under Indiana law, a plaintiff asserting a negligence claim must prove that the defendant owed him a duty and breached that duty in a way that caused injury to the plaintiff.” Id. at 661; citing Peters v. Forster, 804 N.E.2d 736, 738 (Ind. 2004). If no duty exists, there can be no breach of duty, and the negligence claim fails. Jeffords, 963 F.3d at 661. The Seventh Circuit noted that Indiana common law generally equates “control” with responsibility, i.e., where an employer controls the working conditions, the employer is responsible for and has a duty to provide its employees with a safe place to work. Id.

The plaintiff attempted to establish a duty of care through several arguments: that the defendants owed a duty of care towards Jeffords under common law, and that the defendants assumed a duty by contractual language, by conduct, and through vicarious liability.

First, the plaintiff asserted that because BP, MCI, and Fluor were all general contractors and construction managers, they assumed duties of care toward Jeffords. Id. at 662. The Seventh Circuit quickly disposed of this argument, noting that the Indiana Supreme Court has held that general contractors and construction managers “can owe duties to the employees of their independent contractors,” not that they “always owe duties to the employees of their independent contractors.” Id.; citing Ryan v. TCI Architects/Engineers/Contractors, Inc., 72 N.E.3d 908, 914 (Ind. 2017).

Second, plaintiff argued that the subcontract between MCI and Fluor charged MCI with a duty of care to its subcontractors’ employees and therefore a duty of care to Jeffords. Jeffords, 963 F.3d at 662.  However, Jeffords’ employer, Central, was not a subcontractor of MCI or Fluor. Id. Rather, Central’s only contractual relationship was with BP. Id. The Seventh Circuit held that MCI owed no duty of care to Jeffords or to any of Central’s employees because Central was not a party to the subcontract between MCI and Fluor. Id.

Third, plaintiff argued that the contracts between Fluor, MCI, and BP imposed a contractual requirement to comply with certain public and private safety standards as well as to monitor others’ compliance with these standards. Id.  Plaintiff asserted that the existence of the general contractual requirements created a duty of care to Jeffords. Id. In finding that no such duty existed, the Seventh Circuit looked to two Indiana Supreme Court cases: Ryan and Hunt. In Ryan, the Supreme Court held that a general contractor assumed a duty of care toward all individuals working on a project based on its contract with the project owner. Id. The contract in Ryan provided that the general contractor was responsible for ensuring safety on site, and the language of the contract showed the general contractor clearly intended to control the subcontractor’s work. Id.; citing Ryan, 72 N.E.3d at 914. Additionally, the contract in Ryan contained an explicit recognition of the importance of workplace safety, as well as a requirement that the contractor appoint a safety representative. Id. The Court in Ryan found that such contract language imposed a duty of care on the general contractor. Jeffords, 963 F.3d at 662. In Hunt Const. Grp., Inc. v. Garrett, the Indiana Supreme Court held that, based on the contract language, a construction manager had not assumed a duty of care toward all onsite workers. Jeffords, 963 F.3d at 662. Specifically, the Court in Hunt found that there was no language in the contract imposing a duty of care on the construction manager for the safety of all employees at the construction site. Id. at 663; citing Hunt Const. Grp., Inc. v. Garrett, 964 N.E.2d 222, 227 (Ind. 2012). After analyzing these two cases the Seventh Circuit found that the contracts between BP, MCI, and Fluor were materially identical to those in Hunt, and “[did] not contain language imposing on any defendant a specific legal duty toward, or expressly assigning responsibility for the safety of, Central’s employees.” Jeffords, 963 F.3d at 663.

The plaintiff’s fourth argument was that the defendants’ duty to comply with OSHA regulations translated to a duty to Jeffords, and by failing to comply with OSHA, the defendants breached that duty. Id. at 664. However, Seventh Circuit precedent provides that OSHA regulations do not expand common law duties, so a duty to comply with OSHA regulations only creates a duty to those under contract or in privity with a party to a contract. Id. Therefore, the Court held that because Jeffords was not a party to any of the defendants’ contracts, he was not owed a duty under OSHA. Id.

Fifth, plaintiff claimed the defendants assumed a duty by their conduct. Id. The Seventh Circuit noted that a construction manager “must undertake specific supervisory responsibilities beyond those set forth in the original construction documents.” Id.; citing Hunt, 964 N.E.2d at 230. However, the Court found the argument self-defeating because the plaintiff did not identify any specific responsibility that a defendant assumed or performed that was beyond the responsibilities set forth in the contracts. Id.

Finally, the plaintiff claimed that Fluor, MCI, and Central were agents of BP; therefore BP was vicariously liable for their negligence. Id. at 664. However, this claim failed because plaintiff failed to establish that Fluor or MCI owed Jeffords a duty, and plaintiff did not sue Central.  Without a duty, there could be no breach; without a breach, there could be no negligence. If Fluor, MCI, and Central could not be found liable for negligence, it is a legal impossibility for BP to be vicariously liable for their negligence. Id.

In sum, the Seventh Circuit was not persuaded by plaintiffs’ arguments and held that, based on the unambiguous language of the contracts, there was no evidence to suggest that defendants owed Jeffords a duty of care. Therefore, the Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s order granting defendants’ motion for summary judgment.

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