Whitehead v. Safway Steel Products, Inc., 82

CourtCourt of Appeals of Maryland
Citation497 A.2d 803,304 Md. 67
Docket NumberNo. 82,82
Decision Date01 September 1984

Joseph L. Johnson and Dennis F. O'Brien, Towson (White, Mindel, Clarke & Hill, Towson, on brief), for appellant.

Alva P. Weaver, III, Baltimore (Lord, Whip, Coughlan & Green, P.A., Baltimore, on brief), for appellee.

Argued before MURPHY, C.J., and SMITH, ELDRIDGE, COLE, RODOWSKY and COUCH, JJ., and W. ALBERT MENCHINE, Associate Judge of the Court of Special Appeals (retired), Specially Assigned.

COUCH, Judge.

In this appeal we consider whether a person who is employed by a temporary services agency is also an employee of the company to which the worker is provisionally assigned. Preliminarily, however, we must decide whether the existence of an employment relationship was properly treated by the trial court as a legal, rather than factual, issue. We conclude that the question of relation was a matter of law for the trial court to decide, and affirm that court's determination that the worker was an employee of the utilizing company.


The facts of this case are undisputed and may be summarized as follows:

Bay Services, Inc. (Bay), is a temporary help agency in the business of supplying unskilled labor to various industrial customers. When a client requests a Bay worker, Bay selects an employee from among its available labor pool and assigns the worker to the job. The client is then free to utilize and direct the employee as the particular situation demands.

The client records the number of hours worked by the employee and is billed accordingly. Bay pays the worker a designated wage and maintains workmen's compensation insurance to cover any unforeseen mishaps. Bay also pays unemployment insurance assessments for its employees.

All temporary workers are interviewed and hired by Bay. Bay reserves the right to fire the employee if performance on the assigned job is unsatisfactory.

On February 18, 1981, Safway Steel Products, Inc. (Safway), contacted Bay and requested two temporary help workers. Bay selected Whitehead and another worker and assigned them to the job. The men reported to Safway and were directed by it to perform several menial tasks. The first day passed without incident.

The men returned to Safway the next day and resumed their duties. Whitehead was given the task of loading steel scaffolding onto a trailer. While Whitehead was thus engaged, a bundle of scaffolding fell on him and caused serious injury.

Whitehead filed for, and received, workmen's compensation benefits through Bay for his injury. He also instituted a negligence suit against Safway for the same occurrence. A jury trial was elected and trial commenced.

At the close of plaintiff's case, Safway moved for a directed verdict, claiming that Whitehead was its employee and that his exclusive remedy was under the workmen's compensation laws. The court (Bothe, J.) denied the motion and the case was submitted to the jury without the defense presenting evidence. After deliberation, the jury determined that Whitehead was not an employee of Safway and that the latter was negligent in the operation of its plant. The panel awarded damages to Whitehead.

Safway's subsequent motion for judgment n.o.v. was granted by the trial court. According to Judge Bothe, the uncontradicted evidence demonstrated that Safway controlled Whitehead's work. This meant that Whitehead was an employee of Safway and that his only remedy for the occupational injury was through the workmen's compensation laws. Whitehead's negligence action was thereby dismissed.

Whitehead appealed to the Court of Special Appeals. Prior to consideration by that court, we granted certiorari on our own motion to resolve these issues of public importance.


We must first consider whether the existence of an employer/employee relationship between Safway and Whitehead was properly treated as a legal matter, capable of resolution by judgment n.o.v. Armed with authority, the parties present two competing views on this question.

Safway contends, as it successfully did below, that when the evidence in a labor case is undisputed, the question of relation between the parties becomes one of law for the court to decide. In Safway's opinion, it is only where (1) the evidence is disputed, and (2) different inferences can be drawn from the evidence, that the existence of an employer/employee relationship should be determined by the factfinder. Safway argues that, in the instant case, all of the facts were presented by Whitehead, and the defense rested without calling a witness; thus all remaining issues concerning the employment relationship were legal matters properly resolved by judgment n.o.v. As authority for this proposition, Safway cites Tavel v. Bechtel Corporation, 242 Md. 299, 303, 219 A.2d 43, 45 (1966), where it was stated:

"[w]here the terms and manner of employment are disputed and different inferences may be drawn therefrom, the issue is a mixed question of law and fact, to be determined by the trier of the facts, under proper instructions, but where the essential terms and manner of employment are undisputed, the question is one of law for the court." (emphasis supplied)

Whitehead admits that the evidence is uncontested. Contrary to the approach espoused by Safway, however, Whitehead asserts that a jury must determine the question of relation whenever (1) the evidence is disputed, or (2) differing inferences can be drawn from the facts adduced at trial. Taking this argument to its logical conclusion, a factfinder would decide the employment relation any time the parties disagreed as to the inferences which could be made from the presented evidence. Whitehead reasons further that the fact that the jury decided against Safway proves that differing inferences from the submitted evidence were possible. Precedent for Whitehead's position is derived from L. & S. Construction Co. v. State Accident Fund, 221 Md. 51, 59, 155 A.2d 653, 657-58 (1959), where we said

"on appeal from the Workmen's Compensation Commission ... where the facts or inferences therefrom, or both, are in dispute, such questions [e.g., relation of parties] are to be determined by the jury."


In order to resolve this apparent conflict between the two cases cited by the parties, and ascertain the precise role of the judge and jury in deciding employment issues, we examine initially our past decisions in this area.

In our first consideration of the proper role of judge and jury in employment cases, we admitted that the greatest difficulty in these cases is in determining, upon the facts, who is to be regarded as the master of a particular worker. Deford v. State, Use of Keyser, 30 Md. 179, 203 (1869). To leave trial courts with some guidance, we stated as a general rule that a jury should determine, as matters of fact, terms and manner of employment; "it being for the court to declare the legal relation that existed between the parties, upon any given state of facts." (emphasis supplied) Id. at 204.

Several decades later, in Sacker v. Waddell, 98 Md. 43, 56 A. 399 (1903), we again acknowledged that whether a worker was acting as a servant "frequently depends upon such a variety of facts that it falls outside of any definite rule and for that reason becomes, under proper instructions, a question of fact for the jury." Id. at 52, 56 A. at 401. Where the facts make it doubtful that the relation of master/servant existed on a particular occasion, a jury should determine the question. Id. However, upon any given state of facts or upon clear facts, the legal relation that existed between the parties must be decided by the court. Id.

Later cases of the Court further clarified the occasions when a jury, or a court, should decide employment issues. A court, we said, should not determine whether an incident arose out of and in the course of employment if there is a need to decide between opposing witnesses. Jewel Tea Co. v. Weber, 132 Md. 178, 182, 103 A. 476, 477 (1918). We also stated "no action of the Court should control the exercise of their [the jury's] admitted right to weigh the credibility of evidence." Id., quoting Western Md. R. Co. v. Kehoe, 86 Md. 43, 54, 37 A. 799, 801 (1897). Furthermore, situations could exist where uncontradicted evidence in a labor case arguably yields differing inferences so as to require jury determination of substantive issues, see Todd v. Easton Furniture Co., 147 Md. 352, 356, 128 A. 42, 43-44 (1925) (uncontradicted evidence may have permitted jury to determine injury occurred during course of employment, contrary to trial court's legal conclusion).

Nevertheless, we continued to authorize courts to decide ordinarily factual matters as legal issues where the evidence on the point was undisputed. This principle was first utilized in Harrison v. Central Con. Co., 135 Md. 170, 108 A. 874 (1919), where we determined that a certain injury to a laborer occurred, as a matter of law, in the course of his employment. The determination of this particular issue had been accomplished previously by factfinders. See Jewel Tea, supra, 132 Md. at 182, 103 A. at 477. We justified this conclusion as follows:

"[t]he question as to whether the injury occurred out of or in the course of employment is ordinarily, like negligence or want of probable cause, a mixed question of law and fact; but when the facts have been ascertained and agreed upon by the parties, or are undisputed and there is no dispute as to the inferences to be drawn from the facts, the question becomes one of law and may be decided by the Court." (emphasis supplied) 135 Md. at 180, 108 A. at 878. Subsequent decisions of the Court adhered to this rule. See, e.g., Bogatsky v. Swerdlin, 152 Md. 18, 22, 135 A. 416, 418 (1926), citing Todd, supra ("if the facts are conceded or undisputed, there is no issue of fact to be submitted to the jury"); Barnes v. Myers, 163...

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