Tarron v. Bowen Machine (8/3/10)

This reverses a Court of Appeals opinion we blogged here. Please read that first (or at least all but the last paragraph) to put what we are about to say in context:

The Supreme Court agreed.

The court says that it took review of this case in order to provide “interpretation of the borrowed servant doctrine.” But it adds nothing to the law except three relatively trivial points. First, the fact that a servant can have two masters means that an earlier case was wrong if it implied that a master must have exclusive control. Second, in a battle of footnotes with the Court of Appeals, “borrowed” employee is a tort concept whereas “lent” employee is a workers compensation concept (CA1’s footnote said they were synonymous) Third, the court doesn’t like (“we . . . distance ourselves from”) language in a 1937 case that an element in determining which entity was the master is which one the employee was “furthering the business” of, since one entity may be in the business of lending servants. (If one of them isn’t in that business then the language would still seem a perfectly useful guide but this opinion puts it under a cloud in all cases.)

So what does the case interpret? Well, the Court of Appeals remanded “for a trial consistent with this decision.” The Supreme Court takes care to explain that there will be no new trial on damages or allocation of fault. That’s what the Court of Appeals may have meant anyway but now there can be no argument: the amount in controversy will safely remain $900,000. The only question will be whether Bowen is responsible for it.

The opinion tries to seem significant. It even cites Benjamin Cardozo. (So now you like the guy? What about when your court casually, without admitting what it was doing, abandoned his seminal opinion?) But it is the Court of Appeals’ opinion restated more succinctly. We didn’t know why that opinion was published; we didn’t understand why the Supreme Court took review. We still don’t. As for the Supreme Court, though, the rest of the opinion is so lightweight that we will forgive those who suspect the part about remand of being the tail wagging the dog.


(link to opinion)