Monday, April 4, 2011

Georgia Court rules landowner can be liable for damages caused by aerial applicator acting as independent contractor

Yancey v. Watkins, Case no. A10A1636 (March 9, 2011)
Appeal from the Superior Court of Ben Hill County

The Georgia Court of Appeals for the the first time declared the aerial application of chemicals to crops, commonly known as "crop-dusting," an inherently dangerous activity that could render a landowner subject to liability even if undertaken by an independent contractor. 

In Yancey v. Watkins, the Georgia court reviewed the trial court's denial of summary judgment to two defendants who were allegedly liable for damage to a neighboring landowner's crops as a result of errant chemical application.  The two pieces of property in question were owned by the Watkins family and Ussery, who was assisted in his farming operations by his brother-in-law, Yancey.  In the fall of 2006, Ussery decided to use the services of a crop-duster to spread defoliant chemicals on his cotton crop.  Yancy assisted by purchasing the defoliant chemicals and delivering them to the airport for use by the crop-duster.  Unfortunately, some of the defoliant drifted onto the neighboring Watkins farm during application causing damage to the Watkins's pepper crop.  The Watkins then filed this lawsuit.

As an initial matter, the Court of Appeals held that because there was no evidence that Yancey was a partner or joint venturer with Ussery, but was rather akin to an employee, he could not, as a matter of law, be held liable for the damages.

The court then analyzed whether Ussery could himself be liable because he had hired the crop-duster as an independent contractor rather than an employee.  Generally, an employer is not liable for the acts of a contractor engaged in independent business and not under the direct control of the employer.  Although there are many exceptions and qualifications to the rule, the determination of whether someone is an independent contractor often depends on whether the employer controls the "time, manner, and method of performance of the work, as distinguished from the right merely to require certain definite results in conformity with the contract."  Slater v. Canal Wood Corp. of Augusta, 178 Ga. App 877, 878 (1986) (citing O.C.G.A. § 51-2-4).

After reviewing the evidence, the court found that the crop-dusting pilot was indeed an independent contractor, and thus Ussery would not typically be liable for his acts.  But the court's analysis was not complete.  One of the exceptions to the independent contractor rule is that the employer cannot escape liability where, "according to the employer's previous knowledge or experience, the work to be done is in its nature dangerous to others however carefully performed.  O.C.G.A. § 51-2-5. 

Finding first that Ussery himself had knowledge of the dangers of aerial application based on a prior experience, the court went further and held for the first time that the activity was inherently dangerous in general, and therefore landowners/employers who retained the service of crop-dusters cannot escape liability for damages caused by application of these chemicals.  The court thus sent the case back to the trial court for trial with respect to the claims against Ussery (and likely the crop-duster as well, who was named in the lawsuit but was not involved in the appeal).

Turkheimer & Hadden, LLC
Attorneys at Law
Trials and Appeals
(404) 890-7200

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