Law School Case Brief
Anderson v. Marathon Petroleum Co. - 801 F.2d 936 (7th Cir. 1986)
The rule that a principal is not liable for the torts of his independent contractors is not applied when the activity for which the independent contractor was hired is abnormally dangerous, or in an older terminology, ultrahazardous, for example, if the activity might very well result in injury even if conducted with all due skill and caution.
Plaintiff-appellant Donald Anderson, who later died of silicosis while this case was on appeal, was an employee of Tri-Kote, Inc. (“Tri-Kote”), which had a contract with Marathon Petroleum Company (“Marathon”) to clean the inside of Marathon's oil storage tanks by sandblasting. The evidence, viewed most favorably to the Andersons, showed that sandblasting in a confined space creates clouds of silicon dust, which if breathed in over a long period of time cause silicosis, a serious lung disease from which, in fact, Donald died. Donald began working for Tri-Kote in 1970 as a sandblaster, mostly on the Marathon contract, and quit in 1983 when he was diagnosed as suffering from silicosis. During this period he averaged three or four days a week sandblasting Marathon storage tanks. Until 1980 the only form of mask that Tri-Kote supplied Donald to protect him from silicon dust was a so-called "desert hood." It had no fresh-air hose but only a wire mesh in front of the nose and mouth, and the dust could get in through the mesh. Supervisory personnel of Marathon often saw Donald coming out of a storage tank with dust on his face after sandblasting and they knew that Tri-Kote had supplied him with just the patently inadequate "desert hood." The two employees of Tri-Kote who sandblasted Marathon's storage tanks before Donald came on the scene also died of silicosis. Plaintiff-appellant widow Anderson brought suit against defendant-appellee Marathon. The district court granted Marathon a directed verdict. Donald’s widow sought review of the decision.
Was Marathon liable for torts of its independent contractor, Tri-Kote, to an employee of Marathon who alleged injuries sustained as a sandblaster?
The United States Court of Appeals affirmed the directed verdict in favor of defendant appellee Marathon. The Court found that under the general rule, a principal to the employees of an independent contractor was not liable for torts committed by the independent contractor. The Court found that sandblasting was not abnormally dangerous, and, thus, there was no basis for taking exception to the general rule. The fact that Marathon knew that now-deceased employee Donald was not wearing an adequate mask did not show that Marathon was negligent in hiring Donald initially.
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