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Independent Contractor: How Much Control is too Much? (PA)

September 12, 2019

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<p style="text-align: justify;">The Superior Court of Pennsylvania recently affirmed a grant of summary judgement in favor of The Columbia Gas Company of Pennsylvania in <em><a href="https://www.wcmlaw.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Main-v.-The-Columbia-Gas-Company-of-Pennsylvania.pdf">Main v. The Columbia Gas Company of Pennsylvania</a>.</em>  The Court reaffirmed that employers must do more than just give suggestions or advice to independent contractors to be held liable for their negligence.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">Columbia Gas owns natural gas lines that services residential communities.  When these lines become clogged, Columbia contracts with The Fishel Company to clear them.  While conducting the clearing process, Robert Main, an employee of Fishel, was injured by his coworker.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">Main alleged that Columbia was negligent by not training Fishel employees on proper safety procedures.  Columbia asserted that it neither supervised nor directed Fishel’s work on the gas lines.  Columbia filed a motion for summary judgement.  The trial court granted the motion in favor of Columbia because an employer of an independent contractor is generally not liable for harm caused by an independent contractor’s negligence.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">Main filed a petition for reconsideration arguing that Columbia falls within the retained control exception.  Main argued that Columbia should be vicariously liable because Columbia retained control over how Fishel employees conducted the clearing process.  The court, citing the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, stated that the retained control exception does not apply here because the contract only conferred Columbia with limited control over how Fishel performed the clearing.  The court also stated that Columbia merely exercised its right to inspect progress and to make suggestions rather than control the manner or method of work.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">This case emphasizes the fine line between an employee and an independent contractor.  A court might hold the employer accountable for the independent contractor’s negligence depending on how much control the employer asserts on the independent contractor.  This opinion also stresses the importance of a clear contract between the employer and the independent contractor to clear up ambiguity.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">Thanks to Nicholas Wright for his contribution to this post.  Please email <a href="mailto:gcoats@wcmlaw.com">Georgia Coats</a> with any questions.</p>

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