Case of the Day – Monday, January 30, 2017

WHEN GOOD FENCERS GO BAD

Today, we consider what liability you might have when the people doing work for you cross the line. Literally. You know, as in trespass on the neighbors’ estate… commit a trespass. We suspect there’s a backstory here of some neighbor animosity, as well.

fence2-140506The little Schievink homestead (300 acres, but that’s little in Texas, where everything’s bigger) was surrounded by the mega-hunt reserve Wendylou Ranch. Wendylou was having some fence put in, and hired Rudy’s Fencing to do the work. Eventually, Rudy’s Fencing accidentally colored outside of the lines with its bulldozer – a fairly minor mistake, which was promptly corrected and seemed to cause little damage – and the Schievinks raced to their lawyer’s office.

Something seems rather peculiar about this case, and we wish we knew the backstory. Maybe it was the Hatfields and McCoys. Or David and Goliath. Whatever the history between them, the Schievinks were bound and determined that they were going to hang the trespass on Wendylou (despite the fact that Rudy’s, a company with 25 employees and 20 years in business, probably could have easily paid for the actual damage caused to the 15-foot wide, 1,600-foot long strip that had been bulldozed accidentally). The cost and aggravation of litigation hardly seems worth it for them, although their lawyer must have been pleased.

We suspect the neighbors' animosity toward Wendylou went back a long time.

We suspect the neighbors’ animosity toward Wendylou went back a long time.

To be sure, he fired both barrels at the mega-hunters. And missed. The Court found that Wendylou hadn’t been an aider or abettor of the trespass, because its people had been careful to identify the property lines, instruct Rudy’s to install the fence 15 feet inside the boundaries, and insisted on walking the boundary with Rudy’s staff before each segment of fence was installed to be sure everyone knew where the frontier on the frontier really was. It was mere happenstance that Rudy’s crew got ahead of schedule, and pressed on one day into new territory without alerting Wendylou’s manager that more boundary needed to be identified.

More important for our purposes today, the Court agreed with Wendylou that Rudy’s was an independent contractor. This was important, because while Wendylou would be responsible for the negligent acts of its employees, it was not responsible for its independent contractor’s accidental trespass.

So what is the difference between this case and those situations where the owner has to pay when the hired bulldozer over-dozes? Chiefly, it would seem to be the extra care Wendylou took to ensure that its contractor remained independent yet adequately directed. “Misteaks” do occur, but a careful property owner can minimize their effect. Usually, when an owner hires a guy with a ‘dozer, the transaction is much more casual.

Schievink v. Wendylou Ranch, Inc., 227 S.W.3d 862 (Tex.App., 2007). The Schievinks own 300 acres of land, surrounded on all sides by land owned Wendylou, which does business as Wendy Lou Classic Game Ranch, a “true Tex African game experience” on 4,500 acres of land.

... but people do. That's why homeowners should be as careful as Wendylou ... and they may still end up as defendants.

… but people do. That’s why homeowners should be as careful as Wendylou … and they may still end up as defendants.

Wendylou hired Rudy’s Fencing to build a game fence around parts of its ranch. The manager of Wendylou, Mike Odell, gave verbal instructions to Rudy’s Fencing personnel about where the fence should be, and Rudy’s Fencing used its own equipment and — other than being told where to start, stop, or put a gate —was not instructed as to the details of building the fence or clearing the fence line.

Odell walked the boundary line with Rudy’s Fencing’s on-site during each stage of the construction, only going as far as the fence builders were expected to go in that stage. Odell checked the progress occasionally but did not supervise the day-to-day activities. Odell told Rudy’s to build the new fence two to three feet inside the old fence (which followed the boundary line) to keep from encroaching on the Schievinks’ land. Odell had not yet walked the fence line with Rudy’s at the point where the fence veered onto the Schievinks’ place, because Odell had thought the previous phase through a creek would take longer than it did.

Rudy’s used a bulldozer to clear the fence line. Rudy’s supervisor was confused about his location, and he directed the bulldozer operator to cut the boundary fence and follow another fence row onto the Schievinks’ property. The operator bulldozed a strip of land approximately 15 feet wide by 1,600 feet long before Mr. Schievink arrived to tell Rudy’s supervisor that they were on Schievink’s land.

The Schievinks sued Wendylou for trespass and for breaching a duty as an adjoining landowner. Wendylou moved for summary judgment because the evidence showed that Wendylou did not trespass on the Schievinks’ land or instruct Rudy’s Fencing to trespass, and because Wendylou is not liable for the trespass of an independent contractor. The trial court granted Wendylou’s motion for summary judgment. The Schievinks appealed.

A long fenceline, not a lot of landmarks denoting the property line ... a 15-foot error was foreseeable, which is why Wendylou was so careful.

A long fenceline, not a lot of landmarks denoting the property line … a 15-foot error was foreseeable, which is why Wendylou was so careful to instruct its contractor.

Held: Wendylou is not a trespasser. The Schievinks argued Wendylou breached a duty as an adjoining landowner by failing to instruct Rudy’s Fencing as to the property line, that Rudy’s Fencing wasn’t really an independent contractor, and — even if it were an independent contractor —Wendylou was negligent for failing to give adequate instructions to Rudy’s Fencing.

The Court agreed that a person may be liable for trespass if he aids, assists, advises, or causes another to enter the property, even if the person entering the adjoining land is an independent contractor. But here, the Court said, there was no evidence that the Ranch manager had any role in the trespass. Instead, he had guided the contractor to avoid trespass, but through confusion on the part of the independent contractor, the trespass had occurred anyway. The Court found no genuine issue of fact concerning Wendylou’s breach of any duty that it owed to the Schievinks to instruct Rudy’s Fencing as to the correct property line.

The Schievinks also argued that an issue existed whether Rudy’s Fencing was an independent contractor. If Rudy’s Fencing or its personnel were employees of Wendylou, rather than independent contractors, then Wendylou could be liable for their negligent acts under the doctrine of respondeat superior. But a person who hires an independent contractor is generally not liable for the acts of an independent contractor unless the employer exercises sufficient control over the details of the independent contractor’s work.

The Court considered seven factors in deciding that Rudy’s was an independent contractor: (1) the independent nature of the business; (2) the obligation to furnish necessary tools, supplies, and material to perform the job; (3) the right to control the progress of the work, except as to final results; (4) the length of time for which Rudy’s was employed; and (5) the method of payment, whether by time or by the job. The uncontested evidence showed that Rudy’s Fencing had been in the business for over 20 years, had 25 employees, had bid the job competitively by the foot, had furnished its own people and tools, and had supervised the day-to-day work.

The Court thus held that the evidence established as a matter of law that Rudy’s Fencing was an independent contractor.

– Tom Root
TNLBGray

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