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Randazzo v. Cochran

Superior Court of Delaware

February 22, 2018

JAMES S. COCHRAN, and AIR BASE CARPET MART, INC. d/b/a Carpet & Tile Mart, Defendants.

          Submitted: February 12, 2018


          Jeffrey J Clark, Judge

         On this 22nd day of February 2018, having considered Defendant Air Base Carpet Mart, Inc's (hereinafter "Air Base's") motion for summary judgment, and Plaintiff Gioacchina Randazzo's (hereinafter "Ms. Randazzo's") response in opposition, it appears that:

         1. The matter involves an August 12, 2014 automobile accident. Ms. Randazzo alleges that Defendant James S. Cochran (hereinafter "Mr. Cochran") negligently caused her significant injury. At the time of the collision, Mr. Cochran was in route from Air Base's business location to install carpet at an Air Base customer's home. Ms. Randazzo alleges, inter alia, that Mr. Cochran was rushing to deliver carpet because rain was approaching and because the carpet did not fit in his van and extended from the rear of the vehicle.

         2. Air Base, the company supplying the carpet and contracting with the homeowner for its installation, seeks summary judgment arguing that Mr. Cochran was an independent contractor and that no available exception makes Air Base vicariously liable for his alleged negligence. Ms. Randazzo counters that there are sufficient issues of fact as to both threshold status and as to multiple exceptions to the general rule against independent contractor vicarious liability.

         3. In support of Air Base's motion, both Mr. Cochran and Air Base submitted affidavits stating that they considered Mr. Cochran to be an independent contractor. Air Base also points, inter alia, to the following facts of record in support of its argument: (1) Mr. Cochran entered into a written independent contractor agreement to perform carpet installations for Air Base; (2) Mr. Cochran supplied his own tools and equipment, and the van involved in the accident; (3) he was paid by the job and receives an IRS Form 1099 for the income he earned from Air Base; and (4) twenty percent of his work came from sources other than Air Base.

         4. Facts of record relied upon by Ms. Randazzo in opposing the motion include: (1) eighty percent of Mr. Cochran's work came from one company, Air Base and he has performed work for Air Base for ten years; (2) Air Base sold the carpet to customers and had Mr. Cochran deliver and install it; (3) Air Base gave Mr. Cochran a window of time within which the carpet was to be installed; and (4) pursuant to Mr. Cochran's written contract with Air Base, he was responsible for collecting the money for the carpet and returning it to Air Base.

         5. Summary judgment may only be granted if the record shows that there is no genuine issue of material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. [1] The Court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. [2] The burden of proof is initially on the moving party. [3] However, if the movant meets his or her initial burden, then the burden shifts to the non-moving party to demonstrate the existence of material issues of fact. [4] The non-movant's evidence of material facts in dispute must be sufficient to withstand a motion for judgment as a matter of law and must be sufficient to support the verdict of a rational jury. [5]

         6. The threshold issue here is Mr. Cochran's status. If Mr. Cochran was a servant of Air Base, then Air Base will be vicariously liable for any harm caused by his negligent actions pursuant to the doctrine of respondeat superior. If he was an independent contractor, as a general rule (but subject to several exceptions) Air Base is not liable for his negligent actions. Depending upon the right of control capable of being exercised by the principal, those performing contractual services for another are characterized as either servants or independent contractors.[6] If the principal assumes the right to control the time, manner and method of executing the work, as distinguished from the right merely to require certain definite results in conformity with the contract, a master/servant type of agency relationship exists.[7]

         7. In determining whether one acting for another is a servant or an independent contractor, the Delaware Supreme Court recognized Section 220 of the Restatement (Second) of Agency (hereinafter "Section 220") as an authoritative source for guidance.[8] The factors to be considered in deciding whether a tortfeasor is a servant or an independent contractor are:

(a) the extent of control, which, by the agreement, the master may exercise over the details of the work; (b) whether or not the one employed is engaged in a distinct occupation or business; (c) the kind of occupation, with reference to whether, in the locality, the work is usually done under the direction of the employer or by a specialist without supervision; (d) the skill required in the particular occupation; (e) whether the employer or the workman supplies the instrumentalities, tools, and the place of work for the person doing the work; (f) the length of time for which the person is employed; (g) the method of payment, whether by the time or by the job; (h) whether or not the work is part of the regular business of the employer; (i) whether or not the parties believe they are creating the relation of master and servant; and (j) whether the principal is or is not in business.[9]

         8. In determining whether a person is a servant or independent contractor, the Delaware Supreme Court recognized that no single rule exists to determine whether a given relationship is that of a servant or an independent contractor.[10] Each case depends on its own facts and the determination is ordinarily made by the factfinder.[11] Here, both contracting parties attest that they intended for Mr. Cochran to be an independent contractor. That is certainly a factor weighing in favor of his independent contractor status. However, the "label by which parties to a relationship designate themselves is not controlling."[12]

         9. Without exhaustively reviewing the factors in this case, the Court acknowledges that Air Base forcefully and correctly emphasizes many factors favoring Mr. Cochran's independent contractor status. Nevertheless, a lesser extent of Section 220 factors favor fixing his status as a servant. They do so to an extent sufficient to generate a material issue of fact for the jury to consider. For instance, Mr. Cochran testified that the majority of his work is for Air Base; his written contract with Air Base provides that after installing the carpet, he is to collect payment from the customer and deliver the payments to Air Base; he reports to Air Base to receive his assigned installations; and, he has performed work for Air Base for over ten years. As the Supreme Court held in Fisher, under circumstances requiring a balancing of Section 220 factors, the jury will need to decide the question of whether Mr. Cochran was a servant or an independent contractor.[13] In this regard, a genuine issue of material fact exists regarding whether Mr. Cochran was in a servant or independent contractor relationship with Air Base. Summary judgment for that reasons is inappropriate.

         10. Secondly, in addition to the threshold status issue, there is one exception to the general rule against vicarious liability that alternatively generates a triable issue of fact in this case. That is, there is an issue as to whether Mr. Cochran acted as an agent-independent contractor at the time of the collision. Generally, an employer will not be liable for the torts of an independent contractor which are committed in the performance of the contracted work.[14] The employer's freedom from liability is premised on his lack of control over the manner in which the contractor performed ...

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