Lyon v. Morphew

CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts
Citation678 N.E.2d 1306,424 Mass. 828
PartiesJohn LYON v. Michael MORPHEW & others 1 (and a companion case 2 ).
Decision Date05 May 1997

Page 1306

678 N.E.2d 1306
424 Mass. 828
Michael MORPHEW & others 1
(and a companion case 2).
Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts,
Argued Dec. 2, 1996.
Decided May 5, 1997.

Page 1307

[424 Mass. 829] Michael E. Mone, Boston (Patricia L. Kelly and Kathryn Hand, with him), for John Lyon.

Raymond J. Kenney, Jr., Boston, (Gail L. Anderson, with him), for Michael Morphew and others.

Thomas R. Kiley, Boston, for Professional Liability Foundation, amicus curiae, submitted a brief.


LYNCH, Judge.

The plaintiff seeks to recover for injuries he sustained when he fell from the roof of a building owned by Brigham and Women's Hospital (hospital). Approximately one year prior to the accident, the roof had a safety railing, but it was removed by the hospital's engineering department. Among those named in the amended complaint are the hospital's director and assistant director of the engineering department at the time of the accident and the individuals holding those positions when the safety railing was removed. 3 The plaintiff filed a separate action against the hospital's chief administrative officer during those periods, and the cases were consolidated in the Superior Court. 4

The judge entered summary judgment for the defendants who worked at the hospital when the railing was removed and for the chief operating officer at the time of the accident, but denied summary judgment for the director and assistant director of engineering at the time of the accident. The judge then reported the matter to the Appeals Court, pursuant to Mass. R. Civ. P. 64, 365 Mass. 831 (1974), and asked the following questions:

"(1) whether, in the circumstances of this case and in light of their respective employment responsibilities, the designated employees of the hospital at the time [the plaintiff] fell and was injured in 1991 may be found [424 Mass. 830] individually liable to him, see, e.g., Addis v. Steele, 38 Mass.App.Ct. 433, 439-440 [648 N.E.2d 773] (1995); cf. Mullins v. Pine Manor College, 389 Mass. 47, 63-64 [449 N.E.2d 331] (1983); and

(2) whether the individuals who held the same designated employment positions at the hospital in 1989--when a railing around the roof of the hospital's B Building was removed--may be found personally liable for [the plaintiff's] injuries."

We granted the plaintiff's application for direct appellate review.

The following facts were relied on by the judge in disposing of the summary judgment motions as she did. The plaintiff was employed by John F. Shea Company (Shea), an independent contractor hired by the hospital to replace the roof on the "B" building. On the morning of October 31, 1991, the first day of work, the plaintiff fell while unloading bundles of roofing material being lifted to the roof by crane.

At some point in 1990, the hospital's director of engineering decided to remove the safety railing on the roof of "B" building because "[it was] old, worn and rusted, and created a false sense of security." The assistant director of engineering coordinated the

Page 1308

removal efforts. The railing was never replaced, nor was any other fall protection device installed.

In 1991, the hospital had a new director and assistant director of engineering. As head of the engineering department, the director coordinates the repair and maintenance of the hospital's facilities. In addition, the director is responsible for developing safety procedures, inspecting departmental areas, and eliminating unsafe conditions. The director reports to the chief operating officer, who in turn oversees the department's maintenance and safety programs.

The assistant director is second in command of the department. When an outside contractor is required to do maintenance work, the director authorizes the assistant director to hire an independent contractor. The assistant director is responsible for monitoring the independent contractor's work. Both the director and the assistant director have the authority to stop work not being performed according to the contract and to direct the outside contractor to correct safety problems.

[424 Mass. 831] Standard of review. Summary judgment is appropriate when there are no genuine issues of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Dullea v. Safety Ins. Co., 424 Mass. 37, 38-39, 674 N.E.2d 630 (1997); Parent v. Stone & Webster Eng'g Corp., 408 Mass. 108, 113, 556 N.E.2d 1009 (1990). "The burden on the moving party may be discharged by showing that there is an absence of evidence to support the non-moving party's case." Kourouvacilis v. General Motors Corp., 410 Mass. 706, 711, 575 N.E.2d 734 (1991). "A complete failure of proof concerning an essential element of the non-moving party's case renders all other facts immaterial." Id.

Employees at the time of the accident. The plaintiff advances two theories of recovery against the defendants who worked at the hospital at the time of the accident. First, the plaintiff asserts that, because these defendants were responsible, directly or indirectly, for developing and implementing safety procedures and thus for providing a safe workplace, they had a duty to have the safety railing replaced, or provide some other safety device, on the roof of "B" building. Alternatively, the plaintiff argues that the defendants were individually liable for Shea's negligent failure to install safety precautions before starting the job because they had a duty to direct Shea to correct unsafe working conditions. We shall consider each argument in turn.

Officers and employees of a corporation do not incur personal liability for torts committed by their employer merely by virtue of the position they hold in the corporation. See Leavitt v. Glick Realty Corp., 362 Mass. 370, 374, 285 N.E.2d 786 (1972); Refrigeration Discount Corp. v. Catino, 330 Mass. 230, 235, 112 N.E.2d 790 (1953). The defendants may not be held individually liable for any breach of a duty which their employer, as owner of the building, may have owed to the plaintiff. 5

Employees are liable for torts in which they personally [424 Mass. 832] participated. See LaClair v. Silberline Mfg. Co., 379 Mass. 21, 29, 393 N.E.2d 867 (1979); Jet Spray Cooler, Inc. v. Crampton, 377 Mass. 159, 181, 385 N.E.2d 1349 (1979). See Restatement (Second) of Agency § 343 (1958). 6 This liability

Page 1309

stems from the general rule that every person has a duty to exercise reasonable care for the safety of others. Kane v. Fields Corner Grille, Inc., 341 Mass. 640, 642, 171 N.E.2d 287 (1961). "There can be negligence only where there is a duty to be careful." Yakubowicz v. Paramount Pictures Corp., 404 Mass. 624, 629, 536 N.E.2d 1067 (1989), quoting Theriault v. Pierce, 307 Mass. 532, 533, 30 N.E.2d 682 (1940).

A special relationship between the parties may give rise to a common law duty. See Whittaker v. Saraceno, 418 Mass. 196, 198, 635 N.E.2d 1185 (1994) (commercial landlord to persons in common areas of rental property); Mullins v. Pine Manor College, supra at 50-51, 449 N.E.2d 331 (college to student); LaClair v. Silberline Mfg....

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