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Defending Property Owners When Serious Construction Accidents Happen

Has a construction worker been injured while working on your property?  If so, several questions come to mind: Will I be sued? Do I have enough insurance? Could the millions of dollars sought by plaintiffs’ attorneys for alleged wrongful death or catastrophic injuries put me out of business?  What did I do wrong? Will the general contractor or subcontractors assume my defense or indemnify me?

As a general rule, a property owner in Florida who employs an independent contractor to perform construction work on its property will not be held liable for injuries sustained by the employee of an independent contractor during the performance of that work.

But there are two major exceptions. First, a property owner could be held liable it actively participated in exercising control over the manner and method in which the independent contractor’s work was performed. Second, a property owner may be found liable if the property owner failed to warn the contractor about concealed dangers of which the owner had knowledge but which were unknown to the contractor and could not have been discovered through due care.

Ric Keller, a partner at Hill, Rugh, Keller & Main, P.L., has represented various colleges in Florida in connection with wrongful death accidents which occurred during construction projects on campus.

Most recently, on May 11, 2017, the Court entered a Summary Final Judgment in favor of his client, Florida State University (“FSU”), in a connection with a tragic accident and death that occurred during the construction of an FSU dormitory.

In that case (Miller v. Culpepper, et al), a worker for a plumbing subcontractor was sitting on a window sill of a first floor room of the dorm during a lunch break when he was tragically struck and killed by a buck hoist elevator that was operated by an employee of the general contractor.  The buck hoist elevator had been operating up and down just outside the window, but a piece of plywood boarding that had previously been on this window had been removed in violation of OSHA safety regulations.

Although FSU was merely the owner, the Plaintiffs alleged that FSU had been “negligent”, “grossly negligent” and “culpably negligent” by breaching its “non-delegable duty” to: (1) warn the decedent of “latent dangers”, (2) exercise reasonable care in the “mode of operation” of the buck hoist elevator, and (3) also claimed that the use of a buck hoist elevator on FSU’s campus is an “inherently dangerous activity” for which FSU should allegedly be liable.

In contrast, Mr. Keller was able to establish that FSU hired an independent contractor to perform work on the dorm project, did not actively exercise control over the manner or method in which the work was performed, and did not have any knowledge of any concealed dangers which were unknown or unknowable to the general contractor or subcontractors.  The Court agreed and entered a Summary Final Judgment in favor of FSU.

There have been other Florida cases with similar results.  For example, in Fuentes v. Sandel, Inc., 189 So.3d 928, 932 (Fla. 3rd DCA 2016), an independent contractor’s employee tragically stepped on a skylight and fell to his death.  The Court granted a summary judgment in favor of a property owner and held that the duty of the owner to maintain the premises in a reasonably safe condition does not apply to contractors hired to perform dangerous work.

In another case, Strickland v. TIMCO Aviation Services, Inc., 66 So.3d 1002, 1006 (Fla. 1st DCA 2011), the court held that a property owner did not owe a duty to the employee of an independent contractor who stepped on a skylight and fell five stories to the ground, notwithstanding Plaintiff’s arguments that the skylight lacked protective guardrails in violation of OSHA and industry standards and the employee was engaged in inherently dangerous work involving a pile driver.

If someone has been injured during a construction project on your property, HRKM can help. Please e-mail us at [email protected] or call us at (407) 926-7460.