Agency, Independent Contractor, Workers’ Compensation Exclusivity

Jackson v. Allen, etc., [Ms. 1190026, June 30, 2021] __ So. 3d __ (Ala. 2021). The Court, in a plurality opinion, (Stewart, J.; Mitchell, J., concurs specially; Parker, C.J., and Shaw, Wise, Bryan, and Mendheim, JJ., concur in the result; Bolin and Sellers, JJ., concur in part and dissent in part) reverses the judgment of the St. Clair Circuit Court insofar as it determined, as a matter of law, that a tractor-trailer truck driver and trainer was the agent of the company leasing the tractor-trailer for purposes of fuel deliveries and training employees. Jackson, the Plaintiff, was injured while riding as a passenger in the tractor-trailer and undergoing training as an operator. The owner-operator and trainer, Allen, leased the tractor-trailer to Penn Tank Lines, Inc. (“PTL”), and operated the vehicle under an independent contractor agreement with PTL. While operating the tractor-trailer and training Jackson, a collision occurred in which Allen was killed and Jackson was seriously injured. The issue presented was whether Allen, while operating the tractor-trailer, was PTL’s “agent” and therefore whether her estate was immune from suit pursuant to the Alabama Workers’ Compensation Act’s exclusivity provisions, §§ 25-5-52 and 25-5-53?

Reviewing conflicting evidence, the Court concludes the St. Clair Circuit Court erred in entering a summary judgment in favor of Allen’s estate upon finding she was an agent as a matter of law. The Court notes “[w]hether the agency existed is, we conclude, a question for a jury to decide.” Ms. *12, quoting Lee v. WYS of Russellville, Inc., 784 So. 2d 1022, 1028 (Ala. 2000). Further, a “... court may grant a motion for a summary judgment” only “[w]here ... all the basic facts are undisputed and the matter is one of interpretation or of reaching a conclusion of law by the court.” Ms. *12, quoting Studdard v. South Cent. Bell Tel. Co., 356 So. 2d 139, 141 (Ala. 1978). Here, the essential test is whether Allen was PTL’s “agent.” The Court notes (Ms. *13) that this determination is made pursuant to Morrison v. Academy Life Ins. Co., 567 So. 2d 1309 (Ala. 1990) and asks whether the purported agent “was authorized as a fiduciary of” the purported principal, whether she “had the power to make [the principal] a party to a transaction,” or whether she “was subject to [the principal’s] control over her conduct?” Ms. *13. Focusing upon the “right of control” test, the Court reiterates “... the test for determining whether one is an agent or an independent contractor is whether the employer ‘retained a right of control’ and [] it does not matter whether the employer actually exercised such control.” Ms. *14, quoting Turner v. ServiceMaster, 632 So. 2d 456, 458 (Ala. 1994). In this case, because the evidence was in conflict about the extent of PTL’s reserved control over Allen while serving as a tractor-trailer operator and trainer, the St. Clair Circuit Court incorrectly concluded that Allen was PTL’s agent as a matter of law.

Related Documents