THE LIMITS OF CAUSATION
We finish a week of considering independent contractors versus employees…
A couple years ago, we grabbed a Jimmy John’s meal on the way to a high school football game. While paying, I noted a stack of official-looking notices, informing me that my wife and I had been grievously injured a year and a half ago before when we ate a Jimmy John’s sub sandwich in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
At the time, the sub tasted pretty good to some hungry travelers, and we seem to recall that we left the place feeling like we had gotten our money’s worth. Boy, were we ever wrong! It turns out that we may have gotten a sandwich that may have been advertised as having alfalfa sprouts, but did not. Oh, the humanity!
We don’t really remember what sandwich we ate, and if alfalfa sprouts were omitted (and if that had been important to us), we imagine we would have noticed. No matter, we are members of a class of consumer harmed by high-handed chicanery, alfalfa sprout deprivation that shocks the conscience! Admittedly, our damages would never make us lead plaintiffs in the post-Spokeo v. Robins world. Fortunately, we’re not here to talk about that decision (because we’re not sure we understand it).
Likewise, there’s much about the alfalfa sprout class action lawsuit against Jimmy John’s that we don’t understand. According to the information we’ve gleaned from the settlement documents, we’re maybe going to get a coupon for a free pickle, or perhaps a bag of chips. The lead plaintiff gets $5,000 for her trouble, and her lawyers get about $400,000. Regardless of the amount of damages that may someday flow our way to heal our psyches, we were intrigued. It made us wonder about causation and damages. And, of course, about trees…
Back in the early days of the last decade, Georgia Power was building a new transmission line through some swampland. The utility mapped out an area in which, due to environmental considerations, trees had to be cut by hand instead of machine. The area was larger than the minimum required by law. While an employee of one of its contractors was cutting down trees, a branch fell from behind him and paralyzed him.
So what caused the injury? The fact the worker didn’t watch the trajectory of what he was cutting? Just bad luck? His employer’s lousy safety program? Maybe a sproutless sandwich from Jimmy John’s? Or was it the fact – as Rayburn argued at trial – that Georgia Power insisted more trees be cut by hand than the law mandated? Or maybe it was the fault of the consumers whose need for more electricity caused the building of the power line? Or maybe mainstream religion, for rejecting an Amish lifestyle that would eschew electricity?
You get the idea… when someone is badly hurt (and often when they’re not hurt at all), it’s good sport to look around for someone to blame, someone with deep pockets. But here, the Court refused to stretch the limits of causation unreasonably. And while not conceding that tree cutting was inherently dangerous, the Court nevertheless said in essence that the Plaintiff was a consenting adult, and he freely agreed to assume the risks.
Rayburn v. Georgia Power Co., 284 Ga.App. 131, 643 S.E.2d 385 (Ct.App. Ga., 2007). Georgia Power set out to build a new transmission line. The coastal plain on which the power line was being built included wetlands and rivers. Because of Army Corps of Engineers concerns with destruction of wetlands, Georgia Power maintained a policy of clearing wetland buffers of trees by hand rather than with machines, which tended to tear up root mats and the ground. As well, the Georgia Erosion and Sedimentation Act required at least a 25-foot buffer to be cleared by hand on each side of a warm water stream, and at least a 50-foot buffer for trout streams, within which vegetation must be cleared by hand. In one case, a Georgia Power environmental supervisor specified a 50-foot buffer because the area was especially sensitive, but his assistant, an environmental analyst, marked in her notebook that they put 100-foot buffers on the stream. She set out flags showing the buffers. At some point, Georgia Power staff moved the wetland buffer to the edge of the right of way.
Caffrey Construction won a contract to clear timber, having taken into account that several areas in the project had to be hand-cleared. While working in a buffer zone, Rayburn was struck from behind by a limb from another tree. Rayburn sued Georgia Power, contending that the company’s negligence caused his injury. The trial court granted summary judgment for Georgia Power, holding that Rayburn’s injury was “the product of a normal risk faced by persons employed to cut down trees.” The court held that the decision to extend the buffer did not cause Rayburn’s injury, the cause of which was either his decision to cut down the tree in the circumstance presented, or else an unforeseen occurrence for which no one was responsible. The court also declined to find that tree-cutting is an “inherently dangerous” occupation or that Georgia Power directed the time and manner of Caffrey’s work. Rayburn appealed.
Held: Georgia Power was not responsible for Rayburn’s injury. The Court noted that the employer of an independent contractor owes the contractor’s employees the duty of not imperiling their lives by the employer’s own affirmative acts of negligence. However, the employer is under no duty to take affirmative steps to guard or protect the contractor’s employees against the consequences of the contractor’s negligence or to provide for their safety. This is especially true where a plaintiff has assumed the risk. An injured party has assumed the risk where he or she (1) had actual knowledge of the danger; (2) understood and appreciated the risks associated with such danger; and (3) voluntarily exposed himself or herself to those risks.
Here, Rayburn argued that Georgia Power owed him a legal duty not to expose him to unreasonable risks of harm by requiring hand-clearing in an area that could have been more safely cleared by machine, and that it breached this duty. He submitted evidence that clearing timber by hand is more dangerous than clearing it by machine. While state regulations only required a 25-foot buffer to be hand-cleared on each side of a creek, Georgia Power marked a buffer line more than 100 feet from the stream. Rayburn complained that, despite the option of a safer means of tree cutting, Georgia Power “directed that the work be performed by inherently dangerous methods in extremely hazardous conditions contrary to accepted construction industry standards.” Therefore, he argued, Georgia Power’s decision to hand-clear this section of property regardless of the danger to Caffrey’s employees should make it liable for his injury.
The Court held that notwithstanding all of this, Georgia Power could not have appreciated the dangers better than he did. The Court said that exposing someone to harm generates liability only when the person exposed does not appreciate the harm or is helpless to avoid it, which was not the case here. While Rayburn’s experts concluded that the working conditions were “abhorrent,” the Court said, none of the witnesses said that the conditions were out of the ordinary for that part of the state. If the contractor’s employees can ascertain the hazard known to the entity hiring the contractor, the contractor need not warn the employees of the hazard. Rayburn argued that, even if he knew the general risk involved in felling trees with a chain saw, he did not assume the specific risk that the particular branch that hit him would do so.
Rayburn was hired to cut trees. He had experience cutting trees. He testified that he observed the conditions and would have spoken to his supervisor if he thought they were unsafe. He already knew that cutting trees with a chain saw was hazardous, and therefore Georgia Power had no duty to warn him that he could get hurt by doing the job which presented hazards that he fully understood. He had actual knowledge of the danger associated with the activity and appreciated the risk involved.
Rayburn also argued that OCGA §51-2-5 made Georgia Power liable for Caffrey’s negligence, because the work was “inherently dangerous,” and because it controlled and interfered with Caffrey’s method of performing the job. But the Court said the statute only makes an employer liable for the contractor’s negligence, and here, Rayburn has not established that Caffrey’s negligence led to his injury. Even if he had, Rayburn had not shown that Georgia Power retained the right to direct or control the time and manner of clearing the timber. Georgia Power’s on-site supervisor visited the property once or twice a week, but did not direct the Caffrey employees in how or when to do their jobs. The Court observed that merely taking steps to see that the contractor carries out his agreement by supervision of the intermediate results obtained, or reserving the right of dismissal on grounds of incompetence, is not such interference and assumption of control as will render the employer liable.
– Tom Root