Drilling Site Owner Has No Responsibility for Subcontractor’s Worker’s Injuries

The owner of a natural gas drilling site (Company A) won summary judgment against a plaintiff suing for severe injuries incurred after being exposed to significant amounts of dust when a dump truck operated by Company B (a contractor of Company A) allegedly unloaded a large amount of cement too quickly.  The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania concluded yesterday that Company A had no duty to the worker, who was employed by Company C, which had been hired by Company D, a company that Company A had hired to perform drilling operations on the site.  Company A had also released the drilling site to Company D two weeks prior to the incident.

Generally, under Pennsylvania law, an owner of land who delivers temporary possession of a portion of the land to an independent contractor does not an owe a duty to the independent contractor’s employees with respect to an obviously dangerous condition on that portion of the land in the contractor’s possession.  The general rule is subject to two exceptions, operable if the owner exercises control over the means and methods of the contractor’s work or if the work being performed poses a “special danger” or is “particularly risky.”  The court here concluded that Company A did not retain control over the methods and manner that Company B determined in dumping the cement into a reserve pit.  The court stressed that the plaintiff failed to show any specific facts suggesting that Company A controlled any component of the cement dumping.  The court also explained that the activity did not constitute a “special danger” because the dumping of large quantities of cement to solidify the drill cuttings was a usual and ordinary risk associated with pit abatement.

The court also advanced a policy argument:  “To impose a duty on Company A based on the ‘peculiar risk’ exception would only serve to encourage contractors and their employees to perform their jobs negligently.  If plaintiff’s argument here were to succeed, ‘the more negligent that an independent contractor and/or his servants are in performing an ordinary task, the more likely it is that the peculiar risk doctrine should be invoked and the employer of the contractor should be held vicariously liable.'”

The case is No. 3:12-cv-2346 pending before Judge Munley.

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