Good News for Owners of a Construction Project? We think so!

On May 8, 2015, the Texas Supreme Court, in a case of first impression, interpreted Chapter 95 of the Chapter 95 of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code, which relates to limitations on a property owner’s liability for injury, death, or property damage to an independent contractor while constructing, repairing, renovating, modifying, or improving the real property.

In the case of Abutahoun v. The Dow Chemical Company, the Supreme court held that Chapter 95 applies to independent contractors’ claims against property owners for damages caused by negligence when those claims arise from the condition or use of an improvement to real property where the independent contractor constructs, repairs, renovates, or modifies the improvement. In so finding, the Court held that Chapter 95 limits property owner liability on claims for personal injury, death, or property damage caused by negligence, including claims concerning a property owner’s own contemporaneous negligent activity.

In this case Dow Chemical contracted with Win–Way Industries to install insulation on a system of pipelines at Dow’s facility in Freeport, Texas. Robert Henderson was a Win–Way employee, and he assisted with the insulation work. Dow’s Freeport facility contained thousands of pipes in a pipeline system that ran throughout the facility. While working for Win–Way on the asbestos-insulated pipeline system Henderson was allegedly exposed to asbestos dust by Dow employees who were installing, sawing, and removing asbestos insulation nearby. He was also allegedly exposed to asbestos dust as a result of his own direct contact with the insulation products.

Eventually, Henderson was diagnosed with mesothelioma, and he and his wife, Tanya, sued Dow and over a dozen other defendants, alleging under various negligence and product liability theories that the defendants were responsible for Henderson’s injuries due to asbestos exposure. The jury returned a verdict in which it found that Dow’s negligence proximately caused Henderson’s injuries, and that Dow was 30% responsible for causing Henderson’s injuries. Based on the jury verdict and several adjustments, the trial court rendered judgment against Dow for $2.64 million plus interest and court costs.

Dow appealed the verdict and argued that Chapter 95 does not distinguish between a property owner’s liability for exposure caused by the activities of contractors and their employees and exposure that the property owner’s own employees’ activities caused. Further, Dow argued that Chapter 95 applied to bar all of the Hendersons’ negligence claims because the Hendersons did not establish that Dow had both control over Robert Henderson’s work and actual knowledge of the dangers of asbestos exposure as Chapter 95 requires. The Hendersons argued that Dow could not “avail itself of the heightened protections afforded by Chapter 95” because their claims against Dow were “based solely upon the negligent activities of Dow employees, and not from injury arising from the condition or use of an improvement of real property of Henderson.

The court of appeals agreed with Dow’s interpretation of the statute. The court of appeals reversed the trial court’s judgment and rendered a take-nothing judgment in favor of Dow, holding that Chapter 95 applied to the Hendersons’ claims against Dow. The Hendersons filed a petition for review to the Supreme Court, which was granted. The Court affirmed the Court of Appeals that the Hendersons take nothing.

The heart of Chapter 95 are sections 95.002 and .003, which establishes Chapter 95’s applicability, and limitations on a property owner’s liability for personal injury, death, or property damage to independent contractors, respectively.

Regarding applicability, section 95.002 states that Chapter 95 “applies only to a claim.” A “claim” is specifically defined as “a claim for damages caused by negligence.” Section 95.002 then explains that Chapter 95 applies only to a claim for damages caused by negligence:

(1) against a property owner, contractor, or subcontractor for personal injury, death, or property damage to an owner, a contractor, or a subcontractor or an employee of a contractor or subcontractor; and
(2) that arises from the condition or use of an improvement to real property where the contractor or subcontractor constructs, repairs, renovates, or modifies the improvement.

Section 95.003 establishes the limitations on a property owner’s liability for a claim to which Chapter 95 applies, and states:
A property owner is not liable for personal injury, death, or property damage to a contractor, subcontractor, or an employee of a contractor or subcontractor who constructs, repairs, renovates, or modifies an improvement to real property, including personal injury, death, or property damage arising from the failure to provide a safe workplace unless:

(1) the property owner exercises or retains some control over the manner in which the work is performed, other than the right to order the work to start or stop or to inspect progress or receive reports; and
(2) the property owner had actual knowledge of the danger or condition resulting in the personal injury, death, or property damage and failed to adequately warn.

In short, a property owner is not liable for personal injury or death to a contractor, subcontractor, or employee of a contractor or subcontractor, while constructing, repairing, renovating, modifying, or improving the real property.

However, when a claim does not arise from a condition or use of an improvement to real property where the contractor or subcontractor constructs, repairs, renovates, or modifies the improvement, Chapter 95 does not apply. In such a case the independent contractor or subcontractor can recover in common law negligence.

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Charles E. Lobb, Jr. is a founding partner of Murray | Lobb, PLLC. Mr. Lobb focuses his practice in construction law and has authored and spoken at Construction Law Seminars. Should the situation arise he may be contacted at 281-488-0630 or at lobb@murray-lobb.com

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