Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Addresses Test for Liability at Construction Sites

In its January 19, 2011 decision in the case of Beil v. Telesis Construction, Inc., PICS Case No. 11-0143 (Pa. Jan. 19, 2011, Todd, J.; McCaffrey, J., dissenting), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court addressed the test to determine the respective liability of a general contractor and the owner of a property for injuries sustained by an employee of a subcontractor at a construction project.

In this case, the Defendant owner, Lafayette College, hired a general contractor, Telesis Construction, Inc. to renovate a building on the college’s campus.

The general contractor subcontracted the roofing work to Kunsman Roofing and Siding. The Plaintiff, David Beil, was employed by the roofing and siding company as a roofer.

The college also separately contracted with Masonry Preservation Services, Inc. to work on the outer walls of the building. Scaffolding was erected by the Masonry Preservation Services along the side of the building and was not equipped with fall protection devices.

This lawsuit arose out of an incident during which the Plaintiff fell from scaffolding while doing the roofing work on the construction project.

The Plaintiff filed suit against the college as the property owner, Telesis as the general contractor, and Masonry Preservation Services as the subcontractor scaffolding owner, claiming that all three Defendants were negligent.

At the trial level, the college-owner Defendant filed a Motion for Summary Judgment on the grounds that it was not liable for injuries to employees of an independent contractor or its subcontractors. The college also asserted that it did not retain the degree of control required for the limited exception to the rule for liability to apply. The trial court denied the college’s summary judgment motion and a jury later found in favor of the Plaintiff and against all three Defendants with a $6.8 million dollar verdict.

The college filed post-trial motions seeking a judgment withstanding the verdict contending that it was not liable under either the exception for “retained control” or the exception for “peculiar risk.” The trial court denied the college’s motions.

In this decision on appeal, the Supreme Court held that the college was not liable as a matter of law under the “owner control” or “peculiar risk” exceptions to the general rule that there is no liability for injuries sustained by employees of an independent contractor or its subcontractor.

In its Opinion, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court provides a nice review of the noted exceptions to the general rule of non-liability of landowners in this regard and held that “a property owner retaining a certain degree of authority over safety issues, such as supervising and enforcing safety requirements, an even imposing its own safety requirements at a work site, does not constitute control for purposes of imposing liability.”

The Supreme Court emphasized that the college, as the owner of the property, did not exercise control over the way the workers performed their work. As such, the Supreme Court concluded that the control that was asserted by the college over the project was not sufficient to satisfy the exception to the general rule of non-liability. As stated, the Order requiring the entry of a judgment not withstanding the verdict in favor of the college was affirmed.

Anyone desiring a copy of this Opinion may contact the Instant Case Service at the Pennsylvania Law Weekly by calling 1-800-276-7427, giving the above PICS Case Number, and paying a small fee.

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