What a Show

by

Metsker v. Carefree/Scott Fetzer Company (Florida)
(A guest at a recreational vehicle [“RV”] trade show was struck by a pole in a booth for the manufacturer of RV awnings, and he sued both the manufacture and the RV trade association;  the trial court granted the manufacturer’s summary judgment motion by the Court of Appeal reversed finding triable issues of fact.)

The show in question featured displays of RV vehicles and related accessories and services. The plaintiff paid a fee to enter the show.  While he was seated in the defendant manufacturer’s booth a metal pole fell and struck him.  After plaintiff filed his complaint, the manufacturer filed its motion for summary judgment claiming that while it had rented the booth for display, it “did not construct, control, or operate” the booth.  Rather, it had independently contracted with a third party for those booth services.  As such, the manufacturer claimed it did not owe the plaintiff a duty of care.  The trial court agreed, granting the motion, and the plaintiff appealed.

On appeal, the Court explained that with regard to premises liability, “the issue of whether a party has a duty of care does not depend on ownership or title to the premises.  Instead, the appropriate inquiry is whether the party has the ability to exercise control over the premises.”  The Court further noted that “[t]wo or more parties may share control over land or business premises,” and as a result, liability “may rest upon more than one party.”

After reviewing the evidence, the Court concluded that there were multiple facts in the record tending to establish that the manufacturer retained control of the booth.  Those facts tended to establish joint control of the booth by the manufacturer and the independent contractor.  The manufacturer rented the booth in its own name.  The terms of the contract for the booth prohibited the manufacturer from assigning or subletting its booth to others.  The booth was identified with a sign from the manufacturer, and no other name was found on the booth.  The only products on display in the booth were from the manufacturer.  Additionally, the booth contract included a provision requiring the manufacturer to indemnify the trade association and provide a certificate of insurance naming the association as an additional insured.  The Court explained that it was “unlikely that [the manufacturer] would have agreed to indemnify and to provide the [association] with a certificate of insurance for premises over which [the manufacturer] retained no right of control.”  Finally, there was a factual dispute over whether the manufacturer retained control over any of the personnel that worked the booth.

The Court further engaged in a discussion regarding the legal status of the contractor retained by the manufacturer.  The trial court had determined that the contractor was indeed an “independent contractor” under the law, as opposed to a “servant.”  The Court noted that the record raised genuine issues of material fact “about the extent of [the manufacturer’s] control over the [contractor’s] in the performance of its services.”

NOTE: This case highlights the complicated nature of many recreational events and shows.  It is a warning to participants in these types of events to avoid making assumptions that liability may be limited through the delegation or assignment of responsibilities to third parties.  This case is also yet another indication regarding the difficulty of establishing that someone is a true independent contractor in the eyes of the law.  The ability to “control” the conduct of a third party remains the primary focus of that analysis.  Participants in large scale trade association events and shows should carefully review all contracts and pay close attention to the relationship of the various parties and how those relationships impact their direct liability.

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