Tucker v. Union Oil Co. of California, P-T

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Idaho
Citation603 P.2d 156,100 Idaho 590
Docket NumberP-T,No. 12343,12343
PartiesJames TUCKER and Linda Tucker, Plaintiffs, v. UNION OIL COMPANY OF CALIFORNIA, a corporation; Collier Carbon and Chemical Corporation, a corporation; Dover Corporation, a corporation;Coupling Company, Inc., a corporation; E. D. Bullard Company, a corporation; Paul Roberts Company, an Idaho Corporation; Graybill Wholesale Company, an Idaho Corporation; and Intermountain Equipment Company, an Idaho Corporation, jointly and severally, Defendants. James TUCKER and Linda Tucker, Plaintiffs-Respondents, v. COLLIER CARBON AND CHEMICAL CORPORATION, a corporation, Defendant-Appellant.
Decision Date05 November 1979

Glenn A. Coughlan of Coughlan & Coughlan, Boise, for defendants.

Harry M. Philo of Philo, Cockrel, Spearman, Copper, Rine, King & Atkinson, Detroit, Mich., Kenneth F. White, Nampa, for plaintiffs.

SHEPARD, Justice.

This is an appeal from a judgment in favor of plaintiff-respondent Tucker in a negligence action. Tucker suffered an industrial accident while in the employ of Feed Services (a non-party to this action), received workmen's compensation benefits therefor, and thereafter brought this action against eight defendants as third-party tortfeasors. The verdict and judgment were entered only against Collier Carbon and Chemical Company, appellant here. The principal issue presented on this appeal and a case of first impression in this jurisdiction is whether, in the context of an industrial accident and where the employer has been found to be negligent, this Court should adopt a doctrine of comparative fault. That doctrine would require a third-party tortfeasor to respond in damages only in the ratio which its negligence bears to all other negligent conduct by others. Correlatively stated, may a third-party tortfeasor escape liability for the total damages to plaintiff otherwise assigned to him by the traditional doctrine of the joint and several liability of joint tortfeasors.

While plaintiff-respondent Tucker, a direct employee of Feed Services, was in the scope of his employment, transferring aqua ammonia from one truck to another, he was injured when ammonia spurted into his eyes. He sustained loss of use of his right eye and loss of a portion of the use of his left eye. He made claim for workmen's compensation benefits and received a settlement for the loss of use of the right eye. A claim for the loss of a portion of the use of the left eye was left open for future benefits.

At the time of the trial, Tucker had received compensation benefits for temporary total disability, permanent partial disability for the right eye, permanent partial disability for the left eye, future medical expenses for the right eye, and past medical expenses, all of which totaled $16,916.50.

Tucker and his wife thereafter brought this personal injury action against eight defendants. Following trial, a special verdict was returned by a unanimous jury finding that the defendant-appellant Collier Carbon, the plaintiff-respondent James Tucker, and his employer had all been negligent. The remaining defendants were found by that verdict not to have been negligent. That special verdict attributed the negligence which was the proximate cause of Tucker's eye injuries in the following proportions: plaintiff-respondent James Tucker, 10%; Feed Services, Inc., 30%; defendant-appellant Collier Carbon, 60%. The jury, with two members not agreeing, affixed the damages to James Tucker at $350,000.00, and the damages to Linda Tucker at $12,000.00. Thereafter, the court reduced these damages by 10%, that being the amount of the negligence attributable to plaintiff James Tucker, and entered judgment in favor of plaintiffs-respondents in the sum of $325,800.00, together with interest and costs. Thereafter, Collier Carbon moved that the judgment be amended by reducing the amount thereof in the sum of the workmen's compensation benefits received by Tucker. That motion was denied, as were other post-trial and post-judgment motions.

Collier Carbon first asserts that it was the statutory "employer" of Tucker under the provisions of and for the purposes of the Idaho workmen's compensation statutes. I.C. §§ 72-101 to -1434. If Collier was Tucker's "employer," Collier would be relieved of the tort liability imposed on it since a statutory employer is responsible for providing workmen's compensation coverage and, in return, is legally immune from suit by an employee based on injuries suffered in an industrial accident. Provo v. Bunker Hill Co., 393 F.Supp. 778 (D.Idaho 1975); Anderson v. Gailey, 97 Idaho 813, 555 P.2d 144 (1976); I.C. §§ 72-209, -211. Collier Carbon argues that in the present case it occupies the status of a statutory employer and since workmen's compensation benefits have been paid, its duty has been satisfied.

There appears no question but that Feed Services was the direct employer of Tucker. A direct contract of employment existed between Tucker and Feed Services, Tucker recognized Feed Services as his employer, and Tucker commonly used Feed Services' equipment and worked on the premises of Feed Services. Thus, Feed Services, as recognized by the trial court, was a statutory employer and the payment of workmen's compensation benefits to Tucker met the legal responsibility of Feed Services. See I.C. §§ 72-102(10), -209, -211.

An employee, however, can have more than one statutory employer. Most of Idaho's law dealing with multiple statutory employers involves subcontractors. See, e. g., Adam v. Titan Equipment Supply Corp., 93 Idaho 644, 470 P.2d 409 (1970); Findley v. Flanigan, 84 Idaho 473, 373 P.2d 551 (1962); Gifford v. Nottingham, 68 Idaho 330, 193 P.2d 831 (1948); I.C. §§ 72-102, -216(1), (2). See also Moser v. Utah Oil Refining Co., 66 Idaho 710, 168 P.2d 591 (1946). Here, however, no general contractor-subcontractor relationship existed between Collier Carbon and Feed Services, and thus the cases are useful only for purposes of analogy.

The existence of an employer-employee relationship at common law, and the necessary element or elements therefor, is of no assistance. As noted in Adam v. Titan Equipment Supply Corp., supra, the concept of "statutory employer" is broader than the concept of "employer" under other areas of the law:

" 'The relation thus established is purely statutory. The legislature for the purpose of the compensation act created the relation of employer and employee between independent groups who never before had borne, and who do not now under the common law bear that relation to each other. It forces liability upon parties who are in privity of contract.' Gifford v. Nottingham, 68 Idaho at 337, 193 P.2d at 835." Adam v. Titan Equipment Supply Corp., 93 Idaho at 647, 470 P.2d at 412.

This Court in construing our workmen's compensation statutes has at times focused on the right to control as being a significant element in determining statutory employer status. See In re Sines, 82 Idaho 527, 356 P.2d 226 (1960); Merrill v. Duffy Reed Constr. Co., 82 Idaho 410, 353 P.2d 657 (1960); State ex rel. Wright v. Brown, 64 Idaho 25, 127 P.2d 791 (1942); Larson v. Independent School Dist. No. 11-J, 53 Idaho 49, 22 P.2d 299 (1933). See also Fitzen v. Cream Top Dairy, 73 Idaho 210, 249 P.2d 806 (1952) (dealing with the authority to direct the details of work) and Beutler v. MacGregor Triangle Co., 85 Idaho 415, 380 P.2d 1 (1963); Russell v. City of Idaho Falls, 78 Idaho 466, 305 P.2d 740 (1956); State ex rel. Wright v. Brown, supra; Hanson v. Rainbow Mining and Milling Co., 52 Idaho 543, 17 P.2d 335 (1932); Taylor v. Blackwell Lumber Co., 37 Idaho 707, 218 P. 356 (1923) (relating to the authority to hire and fire). See also Lockard v. St. Maries Lumber Co., 76 Idaho 506, 285 P.2d 473 (1955) (relating to the existence of an employment contract). See In re Sines, supra; Merrill v. Duffy Reed Constr. Co., supra (relating to the payment of wages).

Other opinions of the Court have dealt with the consideration to be given such elements as ownership of the premises, proprietorship, virtual proprietorship, and management of the business. See McGee v. Koontz, 70 Idaho 507, 223 P.2d 686 (1950); Moon v. Ervin, 64 Idaho 464, 133 P.2d 933 (1943); Jones v. Packer John Mines Corp., 60 Idaho 653, 95 P.2d 572 (1939).

Another element to be considered is the source of the payment of workmen's compensation premiums. Commonly, the statutory employer pays the premiums covering his employees, since it is the employer's legal responsibility to insure that his employees are covered by workmen's compensation insurance. See I.C. §§ 72-201, -204, -210. See generally Pinson v. Minidoka Highway Dist., 61 Idaho 731, 106 P.2d 1020 (1940).

The principal argument of Collier Carbon regarding its status as a " statutory employer" flows from Collier Carbon's ownership of some 78% Of the stock of Feed Services. Also, the President of Feed Services, one Van Liere, was a paid employee of Collier Carbon. Collier Carbon personnel offered business guidance to Feed Services. However, Feed Services remained a separate corporate entity and Collier Carbon did not control its day-to-day operation. Collier Carbon did not have the right to control Feed Services' operations or its employees. They did not direct the details of Feed Services' work nor did they have the right to hire or fire personnel. There was no employment contract between Collier Carbon and the employees of Feed Services, and generally Collier Carbon did not pay the wages of Feed Services' employees. Feed Services was the owner of the premises and the proprietor of the business. Collier Carbon had no ownership interest or direct financial interest in Feed Services' property and business; the ownership in one corporation by another does not itself create an ownership interest in the property: "Ordinarily, two or more corporations are separate and distinct entities, although the same individuals are the incorporators of, or...

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