Not every contract for services necessarily creates a master-servant relationship. There is an important distinction made between the status of a servant and that of an independent contractor. According to the Restatement (Second) of Agency, Section 2, “an independent contractor is a person who contracts with another to do something for him but who is not controlled by the other nor subject to the other’s right to control with respect to his physical conduct in the performance of the undertaking.” As the name implies, the independent contractor is legally autonomous. A plumber salaried to a building contractor is an employee and agent of the contractor. But a plumber who hires himself out to repair pipes in people’s homes is an independent contractor. If you hire a lawyer to settle a dispute, that person is not your employee or your servant; she is an independent contractor. The terms “agent” and “independent contractor” are not necessarily mutually exclusive. In fact, by definition, “… an independent contractor is an agent in the broad sense of the term in undertaking, at the request of another, to do something for the other. As a general rule the line of demarcation between an independent contractor and a servant is not clearly drawn.” 1
This distinction between agent and independent contractor has important legal consequences for taxation, workers’ compensation, and liability insurance. For example, employers are required to withhold income taxes from their employees’ paychecks. But payment to an independent contractor, such as the plumber for hire, does not require such withholding. Deciding who is an independent contractor is not always easy; there is no single factor or mechanical answer. In Robinson v. New York Commodities Corp., an injured salesman sought workers’ compensation benefits, claiming to be an employee of the New York Commodities Corporation. 2 But the state workmen’s compensation board ruled against him, citing a variety of factors. The claimant sold canned meats, making rounds in his car from his home. The company did not establish hours for him, did not control his movements in any way, and did not reimburse him for mileage or any other expenses or withhold taxes from its straight commission payments to him. He reported his taxes on a form for the self-employed and hired an accountant to prepare it for him. The court agreed with the compensation board that these facts established the salesman’s status as an independent contractor.
The factual situation in each case determines whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor. Neither the company nor the worker can establish the worker’s status by agreement. As the North Dakota Workmen’s Compensation Bureau put it in a bulletin to real estate brokers, “It has come to the Bureau’s attention that many employers are requiring that those who work for them sign ‘independent contractor’ forms so that the employer does not have to pay workmen’s compensation premiums for his employees. Such forms are meaningless if the worker is in fact an employee.” Vizcaino v. Microsoft Corporation, discussed in Employee versus Independent Contractor, examines the distinction.
In addition to determining a worker’s status for tax and compensation insurance purposes, it is sometimes critical for decisions involving personal liability insurance policies, which usually exclude from coverage accidents involviFservices necessarily creates a master-servant relationship. ng employees of the insureds. General Accident Fire & Life Assurance Corp v. Pro Golf Association 3 involved such a situation. The insurance policy in question covered members of the Professional Golfers Association. Gerald Hall, a golf pro employed by the local park department, was afforded coverage under the policy, which excluded “bodily injury to any employee of the insured arising out of and in the course of his employment by the insured.” That is, no employee of Hall’s would be covered (rather, any such person would have coverage under workers’ compensation statutes). Bradley Martin, age thirteen, was at the golf course for junior league play. At Hall’s request, he agreed to retrieve or “shag” golf balls to be hit during a lesson Hall was giving; he was—as Hall put it—to be compensated “either through golf instructions or money or hotdogs or whatever.” During the course of the lesson, a golf ball hit by Hall hit young Martin in the eye. If Martin was an employee, the insurance company would be liable; if he was not an employee, the insurance company would not liable. The trial court determined he was not an employee. The evidence showed: sometimes the boys who “shagged” balls got paid, got golfing instructions, or got food, so the question of compensation was ambiguous. Martin was not directed in how to perform (the admittedly simple) task of retrieving golf balls, no control was exercised over him, and no equipment was required other than a bag to collect the balls: “We believe the evidence is susceptible of different inferences.…We cannot say that the decision of the trial court is against the manifest weight of the evidence.”