Independent contractor rule in D.C.: WMATA not liable for tuberculosis exposure

In a recent case before the District Court for the District of Columbia, the plaintiff unsuccessfully attempted to invoke two exceptions to the "independent contractor rule." Andrews v. Wash. Metro. Area Transit Auth., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 119916 (D.D.C. 2011). That rule provides that a principal is generally not liable for the actions of his independent contractor.

Mr. Andrews filed suit against the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), asserting that a driver of a MetroAccess bus was infected with tuberculosis and exposed his passengers to this disease. WMATA filed a motion to dismiss, on the grounds that the driver was an employee of an independent contractor, MV Transportation, Inc. This motion was later converted into a motion for summary judgment.

Mr. Andrews asked the court to find WMATA liable for the actions of its independent contractor on two grounds. First, Mr. Andrews argued that the independent contractor was engaged in an inherently dangerous activity. Second, MV Transportation was an apparent agent of WMATA because WMATA holds out the MetroAccess bus service as being part of a network of services provided by WMATA.

The court granted WMATA's motion to dismiss. First, this was not an inherently dangerous activity. Driving a bus does not usually pose a danger to others when the driver exercises reasonable care. Even though the particular driver who was infected with tuberculosis posed a risk to passengers, there was no reason WMATA should have known of this risk.

Mr. Andrews' claim of apparent agency was also rejected because it was not supported by competent evidence. The court noted that apparent agency usually does not apply to a government entity as a matter of law, because someone who enters into a formal arrangement with the government bears the burden of ascertaining that "he who purports to act for the government stays within the bounds of his authority." However, the court stated that passengers on a MetroAccess bus would not bear this burden, given the limited and informal nature of their interaction with WMATA. Therefore, if Mr. Andrews had produced evidence in support of his apparent agency argument, he might have prevailed.