News & Insights

Indiana Court Of Appeals Affirms Partial Summary Judgment For General Contractor Sued By Subcontractor Employee To Whom The General Contractor Owed No Contractual Duty

In Tinsley-Williamson ex rel. Tinsley v. A.R. Mays Construction, Inc., 195 N.E.3d 891 (Ind. Ct. App. 2022), the Court of Appeals of Indiana affirmed partial summary judgment in favor of A.R. Mays Construction, Inc. (“A.R. Mays”), a general contractor, on the ground that neither it nor any of its subcontractors had contracted with the company that employed the Plaintiff Ethan Tinsley (“Mr. Tinsley”).  Therefore, the Court held that A.R. Mays owed no duty to Mr. Tinsley.

A.R. Mays was hired by American Multi-Cinema Entertainment (“AMC”) as general contractor for a new theater.  The contract required A.R. Mays to maintain safety precautions and designate an employee whose duty it was to prevent accidents.  Separately, AMC also contracted with Everything Cinema to construct new theater screens and sound systems at the same location.  In turn, Everything Cinema employed Mr. Tinsley.  A.R. Mays was not a party to the contract between AMC and Everything Cinema and thus had no contractual directly or indirectly with Everything Cinema or, by extension, Mr. Tinsley.

While working for Everything Cinema on the project, Mr. Tinsley fell from a twenty-two-foot tall, unsecured scaffolding structure with a broken caster.  Mr. Tinsley was also not wearing any safety gear, and as a result of his unsecured fall, he was seriously injured. 

Mr. Tinsley sued A.R. Mays on the ground that its contractual duty of care under its prime contract with AMC extended to him as well.  A.R. Mays defended on the basis that Mr. Tinsley was neither its employee nor its subcontractor, nor an employee or subcontractor of any of its subcontractors or sub-subcontractors, and therefore its contractual duty of care did not extend to him.  A.R. Mays was awarded partial summary judgment on this ground, and Plaintiff appealed.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the summary judgment ruling.  The general rule under Indiana law is that a general contractor is not held liable for the negligence of a subcontractor, subject to several exceptions.  Mr. Tinsley argued that A.R. Mays undertook a broader duty by contract and thus assumed a duty in tort that reached to him as well.  The Court held, however, that this situation involved a wrinkle that rolled in A.R. Mays’ favor: Mr. Tinsley was employed by an entity hired independently by AMC.  Therefore, the Plaintiff did fit into the descending chain of subcontractors to whom A.R. Mays owed the contractual duty.  Consequently, A.R. Mays did not owe the Plaintiff a duty under its separate contract with AMC.

Duties assumed by contract can be far-reaching, but this case illustrates that such duties are not unlimited.  The duty does not necessarily reach to every person on a jobsite just because the general contractor controls the jobsite, and a worker who seeks the benefit of a contractual duty provision must show that the contractual duty includes him in its reach.