The article is not a substitute for legal advice.
The Court of Special Appeals of Maryland, in Uninsured Employers’ Fund v. Tyson Farms, Inc., recently agreed with the Workers’ Compensation Commission that a poultry farm manager’s occupational disease disablement arose out of his co-employment to both the poultry farm owner and the poultry company, Tyson Farms, Inc. Tyson may appeal to the Court of Appeals of Maryland, but growers and companies should consider the possible implications of this decision.
The poultry farm manager was hired to work on a poultry farm in Worcester County in 2009 that grew chickens for Tyson. At the time, Terry Ung owned the farm, and the poultry farm manager was hired to assist Mr. Ung. Ung passed away in late 2009 and Tyson representatives trained the poultry farm manager in how to maintain the farm and raise chickens since Ung’s widow was unfamiliar with such practices. In 2013, the farm sold to another owner who lived in northern Virginia, and Tyson would only agree to continue the relationship with the farm if the new owner kept the poultry farm manager on the farm.
Under the terms of the poultry production contract, Tyson retained ownership of the birds, provided feed and medication, determined how long the flocks were on the farm, and provide veterinary services and technical advice. The contract included various addendums setting out detailed instructions on how to raise poultry on the farm.
Tyson continually provided oversight to ensure the operation of the poultry farm in compliance with the contract. The poultry manager lived on the poultry farm and frequently met with Tyson’s representatives directly about adjustments during the flock’s cycle.
After suffering from an occupational disease disablement, the poultry farm manager filed a claim against his employer (the poultry farm’s owner), and the Uninsured Employers’ Fund (UEF) became a party to the suit because the employer did not have workers’ compensation insurance. The poultry farm manager and UEF then brought Tyson Farms, Inc. (Tyson) into the claim.
After a hearing, the Workers’ Compensation Commission ruled that the poultry farm manager’s injuries arose from his employment on the poultry farm and that both the poultry farm owner and Tyson were his co-employers. Tyson appealed the decision to the circuit court.
On appeal, a two-day jury trial was held with the sole issue of whether the poultry farm manager was co-employed by Tyson. The jury returned with a verdict that Tyson was not a co-employer of the poultry farm manager. The UEF appealed the decision to the Court of Special Appeals.
On appeal, the court was presented with the question of whether the evidence established that Tyson exerted sufficient control over the poultry manager’s job performance to make Tyson his employer as a matter of law.
To answer this question, the court looked to five criteria to establish whether an employer-employee relationship existed. The five factors were:
- the power to select and hire the employee,
- the payment of wages,
- the power to discharge,
- the power to control the employee’s conduct, and
- whether the work was part of the regular business of the employer.
In prior decisions, the factor of control was considered the most critical factor.
Looking at Tyson’s control over the poultry farm manager’s work, the court thought this was more than enough to establish an employment relationship. The court points to the poultry production contract with the current farm owner which required the poultry manager to be on the farm 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to manage the operation. The contract with the owner could be terminated if the poultry farm manager did not comply with the terms of the contract. The court also pointed to the addendums laying out how the flock should be grown to highlight the control that Tyson had over the farm.
Prior decisions supported this outcome as well, according to the court. To the court, it looked like Tyson exerted enough control over the poultry farm manager’s job to be considered a co-employer. Tyson could direct him to complete tasks on the farm and could alter his performance to comply with the terms of the contract. The court pointed out that Tyson did not have the expressed ability to fire the poultry farm manager, but did have the power to terminate the contract with the owner if the poultry farm manager did not comply with contract terms. Based on this, the court reversed the decision of the circuit court.
One justice dissented in this decision. This dissenting justice argued that the majority misapplied the prior decisions cited by the other justices, Based on those decisions and the following evidence from the trial:
- Tyson never selected or hired the poultry farm manager,
- The current owner of the farm set and paid the poultry manager’s wages,
- Tyson could not fire the poultry farm manager,
- Tyson could not set the poultry farm manager’s hours, and
- Tyson communicated directly with the owner on changes in practices to raise the chickens.
At the same time, the current owner had authorized the poultry farm manager to act on his behalf in operating the farm. It would be easy based on this information to think that when Tyson interacted with the poultry farm manager, they were interacting with the owner’s agent, not a Tyson employee. Based on these factors, the dissenting justice would have affirmed the lower court decision.
I need to note before moving on, this decision may still be appealed to the Court of Appeals, and may not be the last decision on this issue. Based on the current decision, we only have one time where a court in Maryland has determined that an employee of a poultry grower was a co-employee of the poultry company. This current decision might be unique based on the fact that we had an absentee owner and an on-site farm manager who took care of the farm in place of the owner. It is unclear if this had been an employee of a poultry farmer not acting as the farmer’s agent if the outcome would have been the same.
The dissent, in this case, highlights several issues the majority did not expressly deal with in their opinion. The majority never explicitly handled the point that the poultry farm manager appears from the facts to be acting as the owner’s agent with Tyson. We will have to watch to see if Tyson appeals this decision.
Marcus v. E. Agr. Ass’n, Inc., 157 A.2d 3 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 1959), rev’d sub nom. Marcus v. E. Agric. Assn., Inc., 161 A.2d 247 (N.J. 1960).
N. Chesapeake Beach Land & Imp. Co. v. Cochran, 144 A. 505 (Md. 1929).
Uninsured Employers’ Fund v. Tyson Farms, Inc., No. 1057, SEPT.TERM,2018, 2019 WL 6223915 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. Nov. 22, 2019).
Whitehead v. Safway Steel Products, Inc., 497 A.2d 803 (Md. 1985).