Wednesday, September 07, 2011, 2:09 PM

COA: Premises lessor not liable absent sufficient control over site

A North Carolina Court of Appeals panel (Stroud, McGee, Beasley) ruled yesterday in Hylton v. Hanesbrands, Inc., that a premises lessor could not be liable for a plaintiff's injuries since the lessor did not have sufficient control over the site, and since the allegedly unsafe conditions were totally collateral to the work the lessee had agreed to perform. Womble Carlyle attorneys Reid C. Adams, Jr., Rachel E. Daly, and Jennifer B. Lyday represented Hanesbrands in this appeal.

James Hylton, an employee of Suez Energy, sued Hanesbrands, among other defendants, after he was injured in an accident at a steam plant Hanesbrands was leasing to Suez. Hylton was backing a front-end loader down a large sawdust pile when the loader overturned and rolled down the sawdust pile. Hylton claimed that there were lighting issues and problems which Hanesbrands failed to correct despite having had the ability to do so. He alleged that Hanesbrands was negligent in failing to maintain the property in a reasonably safe condition; failing to warn people of hidden, unsafe conditions; and failing to make reasonable inspections and to correct unsafe conditions.

In determining whether summary judgment for Hanesbrands was proper, the Court first considered the question of whether the terms of the lease agreement between Hanesbrands and Suez were sufficient to give Hanesbrands control over the condition that caused Hylton's injuries. Although Hylton pointed to several portions of the agreement which he argued showed that Hanesbrands retained sufficient control of the premises to establish a duty to him, the Court was not persuaded. The Court determined that even in the aggregate, those provisions showed that the agreement left to Suez the specifics of operating the steam plant. Furthermore, the Court noted, Hylton ignored other portions of the agreement which specifically showed that Suez was in exclusive control of safety issues.

Next, the Court considered whether the operation of heavy machinery at night without sufficient lighting was an inherently dangerous activity that would trigger a duty of care by Hanesbrands to Hylton. The Court observed that the agreement provided that Suez was acting as a subcontractor to provide steam for Hanesbrands's facility. Therefore, Suez made the decision as to how to provide steam, which included constructing large piles of sawdust in a particular location with poor lighting. As the Court explained, the nature of the sawdust piles and lighting were actions collateral to providing steam, and no recovery may be allowed for an injury resulting from an act or fault purely collateral to the work agreed upon and arising from a wrongful act of a subcontractor. For these reasons, the Court affirmed summary judgment for Hanesbrands.

Related links: Record on appeal; Hylton's brief; Hanesbrands's brief.

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