Marcy Hill bought a house in Clinton Township. When the sellers of the home moved out, they took their washer and natural gas-powered dryer with them. Although the sellers turned off the gas to the line feeding the dryer, they apparently did not cap the end of the line that attached to the dryer. Neither Hill nor anyone else noticed that the line was uncapped. She lived in the home with her daughter, Patricia, and son Christopher.
Several weeks after moving in, Hill bought a new washer and electric-powered dryer from Sears. Exel Direct and Merchant Delivery delivered the dryer. Mark Pritchard and Timothy Dameron, two independent contractors, installed the dryer in a kitchen niche intended for washer/dryer appliances, at the direction of Hill’s mother. The dryer worked well for three and a half years.
One day, while dealing with a leak under the kitchen sink, Hill unknowingly turned on the gas to the uncapped line as she turned various valves in the furnace room, hoping to find the one that would turn off the water. For about 24 hours, Marcy and Patricia Hill smelled gas repeatedly, but did not call the gas company or anyone else to investigate the odor, although Marcy Hill opened all the windows in the house to get rid of the smell. Then, in the middle of the night, Patricia lit a cigarette lighter – and the house exploded. The three Hills all survived the explosion, but Marcy and Patricia were injured, with Patricia suffering the worst injuries.
The Hills sued the installer of the gas line, the sellers of the house, Sears, the delivery companies Exel and Merchant, and installers Pritchard and Dameron, claiming that the defendants had been negligent and that their negligence caused the Hills’ injuries. In particular, the Hills contended that Pritchard and Dameron, as the installers, had a duty to inspect the gas line, cap it, warn the Hills about it, or refuse to place the new electric dryer in front of it. Moreover, Sears, Exel, and Merchant should be liable for the installers’ alleged negligence because the installers were acting as agents or servants of Sears and the two delivery companies, the Hills claimed.
All the defendants associated with the sale, delivery, and installation of the dryer moved for summary disposition, asking the circuit court to dismiss the Hills’ case. They argued, in general, that they owed no duty to the Hills with respect to the uncapped gas line, and that they did nothing to cause the explosion. Sears and the delivery defendants also argued that they could not be held liable for the installers’ actions because the installers were independent contractors.
But the circuit court rejected the defendants’ arguments, ruling that the case against them would continue. As to the installers, the judge held that there was sufficient evidence to support the Hills’ claim that the installers made “the hazard created by the uncapped gas valve worse.” There were also factual issues as to whether Sears and the delivery companies retained control over the installers even though they were independent contractors, the judge maintained.
The defendants appealed, but the Court of Appeals upheld the circuit court in an unpublished opinion. The defendants appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court, which has directed the parties to address the following issues at oral argument:
Did the installers owe the plaintiffs a duty with respect to the uncapped gas line that was separate and distinct from the installers’ duty to install the dryer properly and safely?
The Court of Appeals concluded that the installers did owe the Hills a duty because they created a “new hazard” that they should have anticipated “would cause serious damages.” While the uncapped line was the original hazard, the Court of Appeals said, the installers created a new and different hazard by installing “the dryer in a way that concealed the uncapped gas line.” Moreover, the Court of Appeals said, “The social benefits of requiring delivery men to refrain from concealing obvious hazards exceed the minimal social cost.” The defendants argue that the installers had nothing to do with the explosion – that the accident occurred because Hill opened a gas valve and her daughter ignited an open flame, three and a half years after the dryer was installed. The installers’ duty was limited to delivering and installing an electric dryer; they owed no duty to inspect the gas line or do anything to it, the defendants contend. The defendants also argue that a risk-benefit analysis does not justify imposing a duty on installers to detect, warn of, or correct preexisting hazards in a home.
Did the installers create a new dangerous condition with respect to the uncapped gas line, or make an existing danger worse?
The Court of Appeals held that the installers created a new hazard because their installation of the electric dryer “concealed” the uncapped gas line. “A concealed and uncapped gas line is a different hazard than a gas line in plain sight,” the Court of Appeals stated. “Had the gas line never been concealed, or had plaintiffs been told of its existence prior to it being concealed, Marcy Hill may have realized that the uncapped line was the source of the gas smell on the day in question.” The defendants argue that the dangerous condition existed before they installed the dryer and remained the same after they left, causing no problems until Marcy Hill unwittingly opened the gas line. The hazard that caused the explosion was not the placement of the dryer in front of the uncapped gas line, but the gas line itself, the defendants maintain.
Did defendants Sears and the two delivery companies breach any duty to the plaintiffs?
Sears and the delivery defendants argue that they cannot be held liable even if the installers breached a duty to the Hills because the installers are independent contractors. The Michigan Court of Appeals acknowledged that, under Michigan case law, “a person who hires an independent contractor is not liable for injuries that the contractor negligently causes.” But, the appellate court said, “while … evidence favors the finding of an independent contractor relationship, it does not definitely settle the issue.” Deposition testimony by an Exel employee provides “reason to believe that Exel exercised a certain amount of control over the delivery teams that it engaged,” the Court of Appeals stated. Pritchard had participated in training that Exel required of its independent contractors and also trained others as a “master contractor,” the Court of Appeals said. “[I]t would be improper to grant summary disposition to the various defendants on this basis where the evidence in the record does not clearly establish the nature of the relationship between the various parties.”