Maryland Court Rules Poultry Farm Manager Is Co-Employee of Integrator in Workers’ Compensation Case

Updated: Apr 3


Poultry house in Maryland. Image is by Edwin Remsberg.
Poultry house in Maryland. Image is by Edwin Remsberg.

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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.


Background


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.


Decision


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:

  1. the power to select and hire the employee,

  2. the payment of wages,

  3. the power to discharge,

  4. the power to control the employee’s conduct, and

  5. 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