A Court’s Bold Step to Limit General Contractor Liability

General contractors are responsible for ensuring that a construction site is generally safe for those working there.  This is a daunting and stressful task which often puts the general contractor directly in the cross-hairs of any litigation initiated by someone who is injured on site.

But what happens when the project owner decides to hire, on its own, a company that provides unique specialty services such as a woodwork restorer, who will work alongside the general contractor and its subcontractors?  Is the general contractor liable for injuries sustained by the restorer, one of its employees or any other subcontractor that is hired directly by the project owner?

The Superior Court recently addressed this issue in Yepes v. C.H, Newton Builders, Inc. et al., SUCV2012-01823.  The general contractor, C.H. Newton Builders, Inc., was hired by a home owner to perform major renovations on a large residential structure.  The general contractor hired a company to perform site supervision to ensure that the work progressed smoothly and to resolve any scheduling conflicts.  A site supervisor, who was also named as a defendant in the lawsuit, was present during each day of construction.  The project owner hired a high-end woodwork restoration company to perform work throughout the home during the course of construction.

The plaintiff was an employee of the restoration company.  The plaintiff and a co-worker assembled scaffolding before performing work on the ceiling.  At some point, the scaffolding suddenly moved causing the plaintiff to fall eight feet to the ground.  The site supervisor heard the noise and came over to help.  The plaintiff was transported to the hospital where he was diagnosed with a broken ankle.  The plaintiff filed suit against the general contractor, the site supervisor, the supervisor’s employer and the owner of the property.

The general contractor filed a motion for summary judgment arguing, among other things, that it owed no duty of care to the plaintiff.  The plaintiff countered by arguing that the general contractor had retained sufficient control over the jobsite which included the hiring of a supervisor on site and that the general contractor was responsible for the plaintiff’s safety.  The court found that the general contractor did not retain any meaningful control over the plaintiff’s work.  The fact that the general contractor was on site every day observing the work being performed did not mean it had sufficient control over the plaintiff’s work thus giving rise to liability.  Moreover, the contract between the owner and the general contractor presented compelling evidence that the owner had assumed responsibility over his own subcontractors.  Instead of letting a jury hear the evidence, the court allowed the general contractor’s motion for summary judgment.

The general contractor was served well with a carefully crafted contract between itself and the owner of the premises.  The court examined the contract and noted that if the owner hired its “own forces” to perform other construction or operations on the site then the owner would assume the same obligations as the general contractor which included providing protection to its workers.  The court found that the plaintiff’s employer was working under a “separate contract” with the owner and that the general contractor could not, under these circumstances, be held liable for the plaintiff’s injuries.

This case illustrates the importance of having a well-crafted contract that helps insulate the general contractor from liability.  It is not uncommon for project owners to decide to hire their own subcontractors who will work beside the general contractor’s subcontractors.  The owner may hire his own interior decorator or someone to install special audio / visual equipment.  Just because they are working on the job site should not mean the general contractor is liable if one of the workers is injured.  The court’s decision to rule in favor of the general contractor was made easier because of the language in the contract where the owner assumed the responsibility to oversee the work of its “own forces.”

Project owners and general contractors should be mindful of this case and make sure that they include language in the contract that will clearly define their responsibilities so that their interests are best protected.


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