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Duty for Safety on Construction Site

Hunt Construction Group, Inc. v. Garrett (Ind. March 22, 2012)

- Originally published March 23, 2012

This important construction accident case resulted in two important holdings. First, the Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals decision that a construction manager, who has no contractual relationship with subcontractors on a construction project, cannot be vicariously liable for the negligence of the subcontractors. This rule applies even where the construction manager assumes the duty of care to the subcontractors’ employees in the construction manager’s contract with the property owner. Secondly, the Supreme Court held that a construction manager contract with the property owner that gives the construction manager safety related duties on the project but also clarifies that the construction manager owes these duties to the property owner, not employees of subcontractors or other workers on the project, may not be held liable in tort for injuries to a subcontractor’s employee caused by safety violations occurring on the site.

The first aspect of the Supreme Court’s decision, which affirms the Court of Appeals, is not surprising. The Plaintiff in this case had attempted to hold a construction manager vicariously liable for the acts of entities with which the construction manager had no contractual relationship or otherwise existing common law duty. In the construction context, contractors may be vicariously liable under certain circumstances for the acts of independent contractors. But no court has ever held that a party could have vicarious liability for an entity with which it had no contractual relationship.

The second aspect of the holding clarifies that parties may charge themselves with safety-related responsibilities without creating new civil duties to third-parties to the contract. This holding furthers the right to freedom of contract and furthers public policy by encouraging construction managers and property owners to take on safety responsibilities without fear of creating liability.

Significant debate will undoubtedly exist over whether this holding applies outside of the construction manager context. A strong argument exists that the logic and rationale used by the Court should apply to any contracts between property owners and contractors, whether they are construction managers, prime contractors, or any other entity. Not only does the law discussed by the Court seem to apply in circumstances outside of the construction manager context, but also the policy rationale discussed applies no matter what sort of entity the property owner employs to manage safety on the construction site. Any defense attorney faced with a claim against a construction contractor should become very familiar with this case and be prepared to argue for its logical extension to entities other than construction managers.

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