Sears may have to pay for its "independent" installer's negligence
Marcy, Patricia and Christopher Hill sued Sears, Roebuck and others alleging negligence. They had purchased a new home and bought a new, electric dryer from Sears. They did not realize, however, that the previous owners of the home had removed a GAS dryer and failed to disconnect or "cap" the gas line. The Sears installer brought in the electric dryer, did not address the uncapped gas line and in fact located the new dryer in a manner that obscured the uncapped line.Much later, Marcy Hill inadvertently opened the uncapped gas line, creating a dangerous gas leak. The family smelled gas but could not identify a source. An explosion occurred when their daughter lit a candle in the house. They sued Sears and the installers, arguing that the installation of the electric dryer in a manner that covered up the unaddressed and uncapped gas line negligently created a hazard. They argued that Sears and the installers' insurers should be responsible for their injuries and damages.
The installers argued they should be dismissed from the claim on the basis of "contract immunity." This argument was a devious attempt to use prior "Engler Majority" Supreme Court decisions to confer absolute immunity on contracting parties and eliminate their common law duty to act reasonably to protect the public while fulfilling a contract. Even the Republican majority of the current Michigan Supreme Court has recently repudiated the broad immunity argument raised by the installers in the Hill case. The Court of Appeals unanimously agreed that when the installers covered up the uncapped gas line and did not address it in any other manner, they failed to fulfill their duty of "reasonable care" and created a new hazard that was not merely a contract obligation to Sears.
Sears and the installers' "employer" both attempted to evade responsibility by arguing that the two men were employed as "independent contractors" and therefore Sears owed no duty to the Hills to assure that the appliance was installed safely. The Court pointed out that it is normally a jury function to assess whether an agent is an "employee" or an "independent contractor," in part based on the economic reality test. Therefore, the jury will be required to evaluate whether Sears actually imposes significant control on the installers: if it does, it will be responsible for their negligence, just as a pure employer would be.