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Robert Piontkowski, an employee of Chevron, was seriously injured on the job at the company’s El Segundo refinery when he was splashed with super-heated materials. Plaintiff subsequently received workers’ compensation benefits for the injuries he sustained.

Piontkowski claims he was injured because a pipe that would normally have drained those materials in a different manner was plugged.

Chevron had a services agreement with Veolia Environmental Services, Inc. to hydroblast such pipes at Chevron’s direction. Plaintiff also alleged that a few days prior to the accident, Chevron requested that Veolia unplug the drain line. At the time of the accident, Veolia had not yet reported to unplug the line.

Plaintiff filed this negligence action against Veolia alleging Veolia owed him a duty, as a third-party beneficiary of the services agreement, to timely respond to a request from Chevron to clean the drainpipe at issue and, further, that Veolia’s failure to clean the pipe caused the condition that led to his injury.

The trial court granted Veolia ES Industrial Services, Inc.’s motion for summary judgment, finding as a matter of law that plaintiff could not establish that Veolia owed him a legal duty of care. Plaintiff appealed. Finding no error, the court of appeal affirmed the judgment of the trial court in the unpublished case of Piontkowski v. Veolia ES Industrial Services, Inc.

In considering whether a party has a legal duty in a particular factual situation, a distinction is drawn between claims of liability based upon misfeasance and those based upon nonfeasance.

Misfeasance exists when the defendant is responsible for making the plaintiff’s position worse, i.e., defendant has created a risk. Liability for misfeasance is based on the general duty of ordinary care to prevent others from being injured by one’s conduct.

Conversely, nonfeasance is found when the defendant has failed to aid plaintiff through beneficial intervention. Liability for misfeasance is based on the general duty of ordinary care to prevent others from being injured by one’s conduct. Liability for nonfeasance is limited to situations in which there is a special relationship that creates a duty to act.

The basic idea is often referred to as the “no duty to aid rule,” which remains a fundamental and long-standing rule of tort law. As a rule, one has no duty to come to the aid of another. A person who has not created a peril is not liable in tort merely for failure to take affirmative action to assist or protect another unless there is some relationship between them which gives rise to a duty to act.

The services agreement was not intended to benefit Chevron’s employees nor was it focused on providing a safe work environment for them. Rather, it is plain from the agreement that Veolia’s services were intended to benefit Chevron by keeping its refineries and equipment operating smoothly.