On August 12, 2014, Judge Eldon E. Fallon of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana denied a Motion for Summary Judgement on the issue of respondeat superior in the case of Bittel v. Chevron US.A., Inc., et al. Plaintiff Thomas Bittel filed suit after he was injured while working aboard a Chevron-owned fixed platform in the Gulf of Mexico. Plaintiff alleges that he was injured as a result of the actions of Defendant Danny Gauthreaux, who Plaintiff claims, was acting as a borrowed servant for Chevron at the time of injury. Chevron, on the other hand, claims defendant Gauthreaux was acting as an employee of independent contractor company, Audubon, and thus, Chevron was not liable for his actions. The District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana held that too may factual determinations existed to warrant granting Chevron’s motion for summary judgment.
The Court, applying Alabama state law, explained the importance of distinguishing between an employee and an independent contractor; “ordinarily, a principal is not liable for the incidental physical acts of negligence in the performance of duties committed by an agent who is not an employee, but an employer is held liable to third parties for an employee’s negligence under the doctrine of respondeat superior.” Langfitt v. Federal Marine Terminals, Inc., 647 F.3d 1116 (11th Cir. 2011). Furthermore, under Alabama law, when a premises owner reserves the right to control an independent contractor, the relationship transforms to that of master and servant, in which the premises owner will be held liable for the negligent acts of the independent contractor.
To determine whether or not Chevron was liable for the negligent acts of Defendant Gauthreaux, the court examined the terms of contract between the parties and the actual conduct of the parties. While the contract specifically stated Defendant Gauthreaux’s employer, Audubon, would be an independent contractor, the actual conduct of the parties proved otherwise. For instance, Chevron utilized Defendant Gauthreaux as a liaison between its engineers and Audubon’s personnel. And while Chevron could not fire any of the Audubon employees, Chevron could dismiss Audubon’s employees at any point during the job. Allowances such as these led the Court to conclude that a motion for summary judgment was improper; there were material facts in dispute regarding whether Chevron retained the right to control Defendant Gauthreux’s work, and was thus liable for his allegedly negligent actions.