Pate v. U.S. Steel Corp.

Decision Date30 January 1981
Citation393 So.2d 992
PartiesClyde M. PATE et al. v. UNITED STATES STEEL CORPORATION. 79-509.
CourtAlabama Supreme Court

M. Clay Alspaugh of Hogan, Smith & Alspaugh, Cooper, Mitch & Crawford and John C. Calhoun, Birmingham, for appellants.

Robert G. Tate of Thomas, Taliaferro, Forman, Burr & Murray, Birmingham, for appellee.

ADAMS, Justice.

This is an appeal of the trial court's granting of defendant's motion for directed verdict at the close of plaintiffs' evidence. Plaintiffs Clyde Pate and William Carvey sued defendant United States Steel Corporation (USS) for personal injuries sustained while employed as carpenters by J. M. Foster, Inc., (Foster) a builder, on a construction project at the plant of defendant. Their wives filed derivative actions for loss of services. Foster was granted a conditional intervention as a party plaintiff to protect its interest as a workmen's compensation carrier.

Both Pate and Carvey were employed to assist in the building of concrete pedestals upon which Q-BOP furnaces were to be installed in the steel-making facility of USS in Birmingham. Both carpenters had assisted in building cement forms from which one of the pedestals was built. At the time of their injury, they were in the process of wrecking or taking down the forms surrounding the pedestal. Pate was on top of the pedestal some thirty feet above the ground, and Carvey was on a scaffold some six feet below him. The scaffolding had no back rests or safety lines, and both men were aware of this unsafe condition; complaints had been made to Foster. In Pate's attempt to wreck a form, it came loose, causing Pate to fall, striking Carvey and knocking both men to the ground. Each suffered serious injuries, including open depressed skull fractures.

Plaintiffs alleged in their complaint that defendant negligently failed to provide a safe place to work, i. e., adequate and safe scaffolding and personal protective devices, such as safety lines or nets. Their principal theory of recovery relies on a duty of care owed by USS arising out of an alleged prime contractor-subcontractor relationship with Foster. A prime contractor has the duty of providing the employees of its subcontractors a safe place to work.

Generally, the owner of premises, such as USS, owes no duty to the employees of an independent contractor with respect to conditions arising in the progress of work on the contract. Hughes v. Hughes, 367 So.2d 1384 (Ala.1979). The test for whether such an owner will be viewed as a prime contractor is whether the owner reserved the right of control over the contractor's work. Hughes. Although actual exercise of control is not required, it is indicative of what control has been reserved.

More specifically, the issue presented here is whether USS retained the right to direct the manner in which Foster performed its work. Solmica of the Gulf Coast, Inc. v. Braggs, 285 Ala. 396, 232 So.2d 638 (1970). The trial court found no evidence of such control and directed a verdict for USS on the authority of Hughes v. Hughes. We affirm.

Quoting Birmingham Post Company v. Sturgeon, 227 Ala. 162, 149 So. 74 (1933), this Court recently observed:

It is not possible to lay down a hard and fast rule or state definite facts by which the status of men working and contracting together can be definitely defined in all cases as employee or independent contractor. Each case must depend on its own facts. Ordinarily, no one feature of the relation is determinative, but all must be considered together.

Burbic Contracting Company v. Willis, 386 So.2d 419 (Ala.1980).

The contractual relationship of USS and Foster must be determined from the written contract and the actions of the parties pursuant thereto. The contract in this case is clear and unambiguous. Its terms do not show the existence of any relationship other than that of owner and independent contractor. Thus, the trial court properly excluded parol evidence as to the effect of the contract. "This Court has often stated that when the terms of a contract are clear and unambiguous, it is incumbent upon the trial court to analyze and determine the force and effect of those terms, as a matter of law." Hughes v. Hughes, 367 So.2d at 1386.

Furthermore, the contract clearly places the responsibility for the safety of employees at the work site on the contractor, Foster:

The safety of all persons employed by Contractor and his subcontractors on Owner's premises, or any other person who enters upon Owner's premises for reasons relating to this contract, shall be the sole responsibility of Contractor....

Contractor shall take all reasonable measures and precautions at all times to prevent injuries to or the death of any of his employees or any other person who enters upon Owner's premises....

It is understood that if employees of Owner shall perform any acts for the purpose of discharging the responsibility undertaken by the Contractor in this Article 16, whether requested to perform such acts by the Contractor or not, such employees of the Owner while performing such acts shall be considered the agents and servants of the Contractor subject to the exclusive control of the Contractor.

Appellants claim that the actions of USS at the work site indicate its reserved right of control over the manner of performing the work, citing Alabama Power Co. v. Henderson, 342 So.2d 323 (Ala.1976). We disagree. In Henderson, Alabama Power contracted with Custodis Construction Company for the construction of a concrete smoke stack on its premises. An improper mixture of the concrete caused one of the forms to buckle, pouring concrete on an employee...

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    • June 30, 1989
    ...Int'l, Ltd., v. Espey, 429 So.2d 955 (Ala.1983); Weeks v. Alabama Elec. Coop., Inc., 419 So.2d 1381 (Ala.1982); Pate v. United States Steel Corp., 393 So.2d 992 (Ala.1981); Smith v. Mead Corp., 375 So.2d 459 (Ala.1979); and Chrysler Corp. v. Wells, 358 So.2d 426 (Ala.1978). The justificatio......
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