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Druivenga v. Hillshire Brands Co.

United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Western Division

November 19, 2018

MARK DRUIVENGA, d/b/a CONTRACT WELDING & MECHANICAL, Plaintiff,
v.
THE HILLSHIRE BRANDS CO., Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER REGARDING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          MARK W. BENNETT U.S. DISTRICT COURT JUDGE

         TABLE OF CONTENTS

         I. INTRODUCTION ........................................................................... 2

         A. Factual Background ............................................................... 2

         B. Procedural Background ........................................................... 5

         II. LEGAL ANALYSIS ........................................................................ 7

         A. Standards For Summary Judgment ............................................. 8

         B. Breach Of The Contract ........................................................... 9

         1. Arguments of the parties .................................................. 9

         2. Analysis .................................................................... 11

         C. Damages ............................................................................ 16

         1. Arguments of the parties ................................................ 16

         2. Analysis .................................................................... 18

         III. CONCLUSION ............................................................................ 21

         Has an independent welding contractor brought a viable breach of contract claim against the owner of a turkey processing plant based on the termination of his services following a fire at the plant? The plant owner thinks not and has moved for summary judgment on the contractor's breach of contract claim. More specifically, the plant owner argues that the contractor has not alleged any breach of a contract term and that damages for loss of the contractor's business allegedly resulting from the breach are not available where the parties' contract could be terminated at any time. The contractor contends that a reasonable jury could find in his favor on his breach of contract claim, however, based on breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and that his claimed damages for loss of his business are the foreseeable and consequential result of the plant owner's breach.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         A. Factual Background

         This statement of the factual background does not necessarily set out all the parties' statements of facts in support of their respective positions, although it does set out sufficient facts to put in context the parties' arguments. It also does not set out the stated facts in precisely the same way the parties stated them, because I have exercised some editorial license in the language and organization of the parties' factual statements, while adhering to the essence of those factual statements. Also, I have drawn on the pleadings and the parties' briefs for additional facts, if supported by the record, where I deemed appropriate to provide the necessary context for the parties' arguments.[1]

         In March 2014, plaintiff Mark Druivenga, doing business as Contract Welding & Mechanical, was retained by The Hillshire Brands Company, the defendant in this action, to perform welding work inside Hillshire's turkey processing plant in Storm Lake, Iowa. The parties agree that Druivenga was not an employee of Hillshire; rather he was an independent contractor. Druivenga asserts, in turn, that he did not have employees, but subcontractors, who performed work for him.

         Druivenga testified in depositions that he had no written contract with Hillshire. Somewhat more specifically, he testified that the terms of the contract were that “[t]hey hired me to come in and do welding work. That's the contract we had.” Defendant's Appendix, 3 (Druivenga Deposition, 121:20-21. Druivenga's deposition included the following exchange, as well:

Q. Okay. So-and correct me if I'm wrong- they'd tell you: Do this job. You'd do it. You'd send them an invoice. They'd pay you. That was the extent of it.
A. Yes.
Q. Okay, and were there any terms agreed to about the duration of this contract or of your arrangement?
A. They had work. They needed welders. We provided that work.

         Defendant's Appendix at 3 (Druivenga Deposition at 121:22-122:6). Druivenga does not allege that Hillshire failed to pay him for any work completed.

         On March 22, 2014, a fire broke out at the plant, after Druivenga's employees or subcontractors performed welding work in the “dark meat room.” That is as far as the parties' formal statements of facts in support of and resistance to summary judgment take us.[2] The parties' briefing-and particularly Druivenga's briefing-demonstrates that considerably more facts are or may be relevant to the disposition of the motion for summary judgment now before me.

         Specifically, Druivenga asserts that he founded Contract Welding in 2010 to provide welding services at Hillshire's turkey processing plant. Druivenga asserts, and it does not appear that Hillshire disputes, that his business was physically based at Hillshire's plant and that roughly 98% of his business was at the plant. Plaintiff's Appendix, Ex. 1 (Druivenga Deposition, 20:2-7).

         Druivenga alleges that, prior to the fire in March 2014, Hillshire asked Contract Welding to patch a series of small holes in the east wall of its dark meat room and that Hillshire issued a “hot work permit” for this job. See Plaintiff's Appendix, Ex. 2 (Hot Work Permit No. 04132, dated March 22, 2014). Druivenga contends that Hillshire had designated Eric Mohror as its permit authorizing individual to be on duty during the events at issue in this case. See Plaintiff's Appendix, Ex. 6 (Mohror Deposition, 33:1-9). On that date, Mohror filled out, signed, and issued Hot Work Permit No. 04132, affirming that Druivenga's welders could safely patch the wall in Hillshire's dark meat room. See Plaintiff's Appendix, Ex. 2. In particular, Mohror marked the following items as “NA” in the section concerning “Work on Walls or Ceilings”: “Verify that construction is noncombustible and without combustible covering or insulation, ” and “Combustibles on other side of walls moved or protected.” Mohror also admitted that he did not indicate that the work was being done in a wall or ceiling, which would have required a fire watch. Plaintiff's Appendix, Ex. 6 (Mohror Deposition, 54:24-55:15). Druivenga contends that Mohror made the representations on the Hot Work Permit, despite the knowledge of Hillshire's employees that there were flammable materials within the dark meat room wall and that the wall could catch fire during welding operations. See Plaintiff's Appendix, Ex. 7 (Frasier Deposition, 25:10-28:22; 29:25-30:23).

         Two of Druivenga's welders, Matt Johnson and Jamie Ballard, performed the welding work on the wall. Plaintiff's Appendix, Ex. 8 (Johnson Deposition, 25:13-23). Druivenga asserts that, as Johnson and Ballard performed this work, heat from the welding operations caused the combustible materials inside the wall to ignite, which resulted in the fire at issue in this lawsuit.

         According to Druivenga, following the fire, Hillshire terminated the services of Contract Welding, and informed him that he could never work at its plant again. Plaintiff's Appendix, Ex. 1 (Druivenga Deposition at 128:22-129:16). Also, on December 30, 2015, a group of insurance companies brought suit against Contract Welding in the Iowa District Court for Buena Vista County, as subrogees of Hillshire. Druivenga alleges that lawsuit meant that he was no longer able to operate Contract Welding, because he could not obtain insurance coverage.

         B. Procedural Background

         The rather convoluted procedural history of this case is set out in detail in my March 1, 2018, Opinion And Order Regarding Third-Party Plaintiff's Motion To Remand, Druivenga v. Hillshire Brands Co., No. C 18-4003-MWB, 2018 WL 1115935, at *1-*2 (N.D. Iowa Mar. 1, 2018). Suffice it to say that this lawsuit began as a third-party complaint by Druivenga in a lawsuit brought against him by insurers in state court, but this action was later removed to this court.

         In the controlling pleading, Druivenga's October 25, 2017, Third-Party Petition And Jury Demand, Druivenga alleges that Hillshire breached its contractual duty to act in good faith and fair ...


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