Case Update: Recent Court of Appeals Decision on Employment Relationship


In Tyson Farms, Inc., et al. v. Uninsured Employers' Fund, the Claimant sustained an occupational disease of the lungs while working and residing on a chicken farm owned by Dai Nguyen. The chickens on the farm were raised for and owned by Tyson. Claimant filed a workers' compensation claim seeking compensation from Nguyen, but Nguyen did not have workers' compensation insurance. The Uninsured Employers' Fund (UEF) was impleaded and thereafter, Tyson was also impleaded into the claim. After a hearing, the Commission awarded Claimant benefits and found that Nguyen and Tyson were co-employers of the Claimant.

Tyson sought judicial review in the Circuit Court on the issue of whether it was a co-employer of the Claimant. Tyson and the UEF moved for judgment at the close of evidence, but both motions were denied. The jury found that Tyson was not a co-employer of the Claimant. The UEF appealed, arguing that the Circuit Court erred in denying its motion for judgment.

The Court of Special Appeals reversed the judgment of the Circuit Court, finding that no reasonable inference could be drawn from the evidence other than that Tyson was Claimant's co-employer. The Court found that Tyson's control over Claimant's work was more than sufficient to establish an employment relationship as a matter at law due to Tyson's extensive involvement in and control over Claimant's day to day operation of the farm.

The Court of Appeals granted certiorari to determine whether the Court of Special Appeals was correct in finding that there was sufficient evidence to find an employment relationship between Tyson and the Claimant as a matter of law. The Court ultimately reversed the Court of Special Appeals, concluding that there was sufficient evidence from which a reasonable jury could find that Tyson was not a co-employer of the Claimant. The Court said that even where evidence is uncontradicted or undisputed, if there are conflicting inferences to be drawn from the evidence, the question of the existence of an employer-employee relationship is to be determined by the jury as a question of fact. The Court noted that the decisive test in ascertaining whether an employment relationship exists is whether an entity has the right to control the employee's conduct and performance of work. In this case, the evidence of control over the Claimant was susceptible to two equally reasonable inferences, that Tyson was or was not a co-employer of the Claimant. Therefore, the Court of Special Appeals erred in deciding the factor of control as a matter of law.

The Court said that while Tyson uses a standard broiler production contract with chicken farms, it would not establish a blanket rule that under that contract, any on-site manager for an absentee owner either is or is not Tyson's employee. Triers of fact will need to examine the circumstances of each case to determine whether an employer-employee relationship exists between Tyson and a chicken farm worker.

A copy of the Opinion can be found at: