U.S. Court of Appeals Affirms Defense Verdict Over Issue of Duty Owed to Injured Worker

Victoria Jeffords sued defendant BP Products North America, the operator of an oil refinery, Fluor Constructors International, the engineering and construction manager and MC Industrial. She claimed that her husband, Donald Jeffords, had been injured when he was employed by Central Rent-a-Crane, which BP contracted with to provide crane services. He fractured both feet and his back when he fell seven feet while on a 13-inch wide catwalk on the crane with no guardrail while checking the crane’s fluid levels.

The U.S. District Court Judge granted summary judgment for BP, Fluor and MC Industrial finding no duty was owed to Jeffords and no breach of any duty existed under the contracts, at common law, or under OSHA.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit in Chicago affirmed, citing six reasons the defendants breached no duty owed to Jeffords, noting Jeffords could not sue his employer, Central Rent-a-Crane, as he had only a workers’ compensation claim.

The district court judge began the court’s decision, explaining:

“The principal of an independent contractor, who does not control the contractor’s working conditions, ordinarily owes the contractor’s employees no similar duty.”

Next, the court recognized the sources of a duty:

“The principal may, however, assume by contract a ‘specific’ nondelegable duty of care toward its contractor’s employees. Similarly, the construction manager of a construction project, even if it is not itself the principal of any contractor, may assume an otherwise nonexistent duty to provide a reasonably safe job site either by contract or ‘gratuitously or voluntarily’ by its conduct.”

The district court judge went on to state that: “Each of the estate’s arguments is defeated by the undisputed material facts and contractual provisions in the record, and by the limits of the relevant Indiana Supreme Court cases.”

This case was first handled in the district court in Northern District of Indiana. The court also stated that a duty is owed only if found in the contracts:

“First, the estate argues that BP, MCI, and Fluor all may be characterized as general contractors or construction managers and that all therefore assumed duties of care toward Jeffords. Even assuming the dubious premise, the conclusion is incorrect. As the district court explained, in Ryan (Ryan v. TCI Architects/Engineers/Contractors, Inc., 72 N.E.3d 908, 913 (Ind.2017) and Hunt (Hunt Construction Group, Inc. v. Garrett, 964 N.E.2d 222, 226–27, 229 (Ind. 2012) the Indiana Supreme Court held respectively 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.’ Whether a duty exists depends ‘solely’ on the language of the relevant contracts.”

Holding MCI owed Jeffords no duty, as only his employer, Central Rent-a-Crane owed him a duty, the court explained:

“Second, the estate argues that, because MCI was contractually charged by Fluor with responsibility for the safety of its subcontractors’ employees, MCI owed Jeffords a duty of care.  But Central, Jeffords’s employer, was not MCI’s subcontractor; its only contractual relationship—at least the only one appearing in the record—was with BP. MCI therefore owed no duty of care to Jeffords under this provision of its contract with Fluor.”

Next, the district court judge found that OSHA imposed no duty on the defendants reasoning as follows:

“Jeffords’s injuries were proximately caused by the defendants’ failure to comply with regulations promulgated under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), 29 U.S.C. Sec. 651 et seq., in breach of their contractual promises to do so. But OSHA regulations cannot ‘be used to expand or otherwise affect [a defendant’s] common law duties or liabilities under a negligence per se theory, or as evidence of an expanded standard of care.’”

In conclusion, in affirming the decision of the district court, it was stated that:

“Plaintiff’s claims are defeated by unambiguous contractual provisions. The district court correctly held as a matter of law that none of these defendants owed Jeffords a duty of care.”

Accordingly, the district court’s opinion granting summary judgment for these defendants was affirmed.

Jeffords v. BP Products North America, Inc., 963 F. 3d 658 (7th Cir. 2020).

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling worksite injury lawsuits, forklift injury cases, crane accident lawsuits, construction injury lawsuits and catastrophic injury lawsuits for individuals, families and loved ones who have been injured, harmed or killed by the carelessness or negligence of another for more than 40 years in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Maywood, Mount Prospect, Prospect Heights, Palatine, Palos Hills, Oak Lawn, Oak Forest, Schaumburg, Schiller Park, Bolingbrook, Romeoville, Lincolnshire, Wheeling, Libertyville, Mundelein, South Holland, Blue Island, Chicago (Logan Square, South Shore, Bronzeville, Kenwood, Woodlawn, East Garfield Park, Rogers Park, Albany Park, Uptown, Jefferson Park, Jackson Park, Hegewisch), Hinsdale, Wheaton, St. Charles, Aurora and Joliet, Ill.

Robert D. Kreisman has been an active member of the Illinois and Missouri bars since 1976.

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