Court Upholds Liability Limits For Construction Injuries

May 17, 2002
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LANSING — A general contractor's legal liability for on-the-job injuries suffered by employees of subcontractors was recently reaffirmed by a state court.

Just before the new year, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled in favor of a Zeeland-based construction company that was sued by a worker of a roofing subcontractor. The worker tumbled from a rooftop when the porch under him collapsed.

The injured roofer accused Aukeman Development Co. of failing to take steps that would guard against unreasonable risks to workers on the job site. The appellate court disagreed.

In the case, Simpson vs. Aukeman Development Co., the court ruled against the plaintiff saying that the roof was not a common work area — a key element in determining a general contractor's job-site liability.

"The court basically said that a general contractor is not liable for injuries to employees of a subcontractor unless four conditions exist. Absent those four conditions, the general contractor is insulated from liability," said Bruce Courtade, a member of the construction law group at Rhoades, McKee, Boer, Goodrich & Titta.

In general, the court indicated that a contractor is only liable for injuries suffered by a subcontractor's employee if there were avoidable dangers in a common work area. For that situation to arise, the court felt that four conditions had to be present:

  • A contractor must have supervisory and coordinating authority over the job site.

  • A common work area must be shared by employees of more than one subcontractor.

  • There must be a readily observable and avoidable danger in that common work area.

  • The common work area must create a high degree of risk for a significant number of workers.

The court defined a common work area as one in which employees of at least two subcontracting firms will work. In this case, the roofing subcontractor was the only firm on the roof.

The justices also indicated that for a general contractor to be liable, the company's retention of control must have had an actual effect on the manner in which the work was performed, or on the environment in which the work was done. In this case, the porch that collapsed was built by another subcontractor.

The recent decision means a general contractor's liability for on-the-job injuries suffered by employees of subcontractors hasn't changed.

"The ruling reaffirms a prior decision from the Court of Appeals called Hughes vs. PMG Building, a 1997 case," said Courtade. "This court specifically upheld the Hughes decision, which also involved a roofer who was injured."

As for subcontractors, either the companies, or their workers' comp insurance, will still be the primary targets of any liability lawsuits that come from workplace injuries.

"The only way that the subcontractors will be able to get out of that, is if they can prove that the four conditions are met.

"Then they can go after the general contractors," said Courtade. "But this decision really insulates the general contractor from liability."

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