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Monday, February 3, 2014

Indiana Supreme Court on Contractual Duties and Assumption of Duties

Lucas Oil StadiumThis is the third in a series of posts that draw on Michael Dorelli and Kimberly Cohen's recent article in the Indiana Law Review on developments in contracts law in Indiana.   

Shannon Garrett was an employee of a sub-contractor working on the construction of Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis (pictured).   She was injured on the job and sought to recover from the construction manager on the project, Hunt Construction Group (Hunt).  She was not employed by the construction manager but claimed that it had a legal duty of care for jobsite safety and was vicariously liable for the negligence of her employer, Baker Concrete Construction, Inc. (Baker).  Her claims against Baker were governed by Indiana's Worker's Compensation Act, but the Act does not prevent her from suing any other entity in tort.

While the trial court ruled in Garrett's favor on the issue of various liability, the Court of Appeals reversed on that issue.  The Court of Appeals majority found that Hunt did owe Garrett a contractual duty for workplace safety.  In  Hunt Construction Group, Inc. v. Garrett, the Indiana Supreme Court  summarily affirmed the Court of Appeals' ruling on vicarious liability, but it also found that Hunt owed Garrett no contractual duty and had assumed none for which it could be liable to her.

Under Indiana case law, a construction manager can assume a duty to a sub-contractor's employee in two circumstances: (1) when such a duty is imposed upon the construction manager by a contract to which it is a party, or (2) when the construction manager “assumes such a duty, either gratuitously or voluntarily."  The Indiana Supreme Court concluded that, while the contracts at issue did impose some duties upon Hunt for jobsite safety, those duties ran to the Stadium Authority and not to "Contractors, the Architect, or other parties performing Work or services with respect to the Project."  On the contrary, the contracts provided that Baker was “the controlling employer responsible for [its own] safety programs and precautions.”

The tougher question was whether Hunt had gratuitously or voluntarily assumed a duty for jobsite safety.  As to that, the Court held that, in order for a construction manager to assume a legal duty of care for jobsite safety, it "must undertake specific supervisory responsibilities beyond those set forth in the original construction documents."  After reviewing the facts of the case, the Court found that Hunt had not done so "for any part of the project on which Garrett was working."

Justice (now Chief Justice) Dickson dissented.  He found that there remained material facts in dispute and would not have decided the case on a motion for summary judgment.

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