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Texas Supreme Court Considers Property Owner’s Liability to Independent Contractors

The state’s high court recently released an opinion in a Texas wrongful death case involving the death of an employee that worked for an independent contractor that was hired by the defendant property owner. The issue in the case was whether the property owner could be held liable for the employee’s death based on a theory of negligently hiring.

According to the court’s opinion, the property owner was an energy company that had hired a drilling company as a contractor to drill a well. A drilling company employee died while working on the well. He was working on the well when a rope caught on a pulley, causing a pipe to hit the employee in the head, which eventually resulted in his death. The employee’s family sued the energy company, alleging that the energy company negligently hired, retained, and supervised the drilling company.

A property owner can be held liable for a claim that harms an independent contractor or the contractor’s employees if the property owner controlled the work and knew or should have known of the risk or danger that caused the contractor harm. Under Chapter 95 of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code, a property owner can be held liable for an injury to a contractor that is repairing, renovating, constructing, or modifying property, but only if the property owner controlled the work and “had actual knowledge of the danger or condition.”

The parties disputed whether Chapter 95 applied to the case. The employee’s family did not claim that the energy company had actual knowledge of the danger that caused the employee’s death. Rather, the employee’s family argued that Chapter 95 did not apply, and therefore, that they were only required to show that the energy company should have known of the danger. The Supreme Court of Texas had to decide whether the claim arose “from the condition or use of an improvement” to the energy company’s property. The court explained that the claim must arise from the use of an improvement to the property, but the owner’s negligence does not need to involve the use of the improvement, or that the use of the improvement is the only cause of the injury.

In this case, the court explained that the claim of negligent hiring depended on proof that the drilling company’s use of an improvement to the property caused the employee’s death. Because the court determined that to be the case, the court found that the claim arose from the “condition of or use of an improvement” to the property, and thus Chapter 95 applies. The court found in favor of the company, and dismissed the negligent-hiring claim against it.

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