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Girardi v. Lipsett Inc.

decided: March 7, 1960.


Author: Goodrich


GOODRICH, Circuit Judge.

This is an appeal from a judgment for the defendant entered by the District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in a personal injury action brought against the defendant, Lipsett, Inc.*fn1 All the problems in the case were very carefully considered in an opinion filed by District Judge Clary, D.C.E.D.Pa.1959, 174 F.Supp. 813. Since we agree with him, this opinion can be appropriately shortened.

The only substantial problem in the case is whether the district judge was correct in concluding that Lipsett was a "statutory employer" of the plaintiff under the provisions of the Pennsylvania Workmen's Compensation Act and was, therefore, not subject to suit for common-law negligence.

Pennsylvania Power & Light Company (P.P.&L.) desired to remove certain equipment and demolish certain buildings and other structures at four of its steam electric stations in Pennsylvania. Lipsett paid P.P.&L. $100,000 for what P.P.&L. called Lipsett's "offer to purchase the equipment. * * *" While thus phrased in terms of a sale and purchase the contract further provided, with respect to the Williamsport steam electric station, at Williamsport, Pennsylvania, that: "All the equipment in the main power plant building to be removed, that building and the two stacks demolished and all the debris disposed of to our satisfaction by April 1, 1956." Thus it is seen that while Lipsett was buying materials it was also entering into a demolition contract which was to be performed to the satisfaction of P.P.&L. In July, 1955, Lipsett, after having begun work at the Williamsport station, had its superintendent remove all of its equipment and take its men away from the job; it is admitted by Lipsett's counsel that Lipsett thereafter did not have any actual control or possession of the premises. On August 29, 1955, Lipsett entered into a contract with the third-party defendant, Andershonis, Inc., by which the latter agreed to demolish the plant and stacks, remove the debris, and prepare and outload all the steel and iron for a stipulated price. During the work by Andershonis, Girardi, an employee of that company, was badly hurt. The jury found, and the finding is not disputed, that both Lipsett and Andershonis were negligent and that the negligence contributed to Girardi's injuries. Can the plaintiff recover against Lipsett?

Defendant's argument is that it is a "statutory employer" within the meaning of Section 203 of the Pennsylvania Workmen's Compensation Act of 1915, Pa.Stat.Ann. tit. 77, ยง 52. If it is, then it is not subject to liability in a common-law negligence action.See Gallivan v. Wark Co., 1927, 288 Pa. 443, 136 A. 223.

This section, as read by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in McDonald v. Levinson Steel Co., 1930, 302 Pa. 287, 294-295, 153 A. 424, 426, is as follows:

"An employer [principal contractor] who permits the entry upon premises occupied by him or under his control of a laborer * * * hired by * * * a contractor [subcontractor], for the performance upon such premises of a part of the employer's [principal contractor's] regular business entrusted to such * * * contractor [subcontractor], shall be liable * * * in the same manner * * * as to his own employee."*fn2

The plaintiff would have the instant case read on McDonald where a suit against the defendant was held to lie. He argues that Lipsett could not be a "statutory employer" because it was an owner as was the defendant in McDonald. But, in the McDonald case, the defendant, owner of a lease held in land, was building a structure thereon for its own convenience. It was the owner, albeit not the owner of the fee, of the land on which the structure was being built. Lipsett was an owner of the metal which it bought, no doubt, but it was not the owner of the land. As already pointed out, it was on P.P.&L.'s land under its agreement to demolish the building by a certain date and to the satisfaction of the company. Its only privilege on the land was to remove the scrap metal and do this demolition work.*fn3

The plaintiff also insists that our decision in Boettger v. Babcock & Wilcox Co., 3 Cir., 1957, 242 F.2d 455, shows that the trial court was in error here. We do not agree with that. The Boettger decision gives us no guidance to the answer in this case for the court was there concerned with a wholly different problem.

So we go back to the words of the statute. At the time Lipsett entered the premises of P.P.&L. in Williamsport, it was certainly a principal contractor and it was both occupying and controlling the premises. Immediately prior to the time Andershonis went to work under the subcontract, Lipsett itself, it may be granted, was not physically occupying the premises. Its equipment and men had been taken away. But it was not through with the premises. It is true that it made a contract with Andershonis to do what it had contracted with P.P.&L. to do, but this did not release Lipsett from its contract, certainly not as a matter of law and certainly not as a matter of fact because there is an express finding by the jury to that effect. The plaintiff complains that the jury was allowed to consider the fact that Lipsett told Andershonis where to ship the scrap which Andershonis collected on the property. We see no error in this for we think it is some evidence of Lipsett's right to control. We do think it more important as to the right to control that Lipsett is bound by its agreement with P.P.&L. to do certain things on this land at Williamsport to the satisfaction of P.P.&L. and by a given date. It, therefore, had the obligation to control and must exercise it if necessary to perform its contract.

So we are left with what has already been described as the main question whether "control" as used in Section 203 means actual control or a right to control. We are not helped by plaintiff's very earnest and, indeed, very able argument about "strict," "liberal," "literal" and "inclusive" interpretations as applied to the problem here.*fn4 Both parties and the court below have searched in vain for any reported legislative history behind Section 203.

We turn then to the Pennsylvania decisions. In Qualp v. James Stewart Co., 1920, 266 Pa. 502, 509, 109 A. 780, 782, a case which the plaintiff thinks little of, the court said: "The Legislature wanted to definitely fix some responsible party with the obligation of paying compensation to injured workmen, and the party selected was the first whose duty it was to assume control of the work * * *." The plaintiff disputes the premise that "principal contractors are more likely to be financially responsible than subcontractors," which he ascribes to the court in Qualp.

Our function here is not to agree or disagree with premises adopted by the Pennsylvania courts in interpreting Pennsylvania statutes. It is to get, as best we can, the point of view of the Pennsylvania courts with regard to the statute and apply it. We think the quote from Qualp is helpful to this end. So, ...

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