A subcontractor is rarely the party assigned overall responsibility for job site safety. The subcontract itself usually requires the sub to avoid creating safety hazards while performing its own scope of work. But that is it. Consequently, it was surprising when a subcontractor was sued by injured employees of the prime contractor for a hazard the sub did not create.
The situation arose when an employee of an HVAC subcontractor was mildly shocked by an ungrounded light fixture wired to an unguarded electrical circuit. This was a pre-existing condition in a building under renovation. The electrical system was not within the HVAC sub’s scope of work. The subcontractor was aware of the incident but considered it minor and did not report it to anyone. Two employees of the prime contractor subsequently suffered more serious injuries as a result of the hazard.
A California court grappled to find a source for some duty the subcontractor might have to warn the prime contractor or its employees. It was not to be found in the common law of negligence. It was not to be found in the terms of the subcontract itself. But the state labor law, Cal-OSHA, was a different matter.
Is it fair to hold a subcontractor responsible for a pre-existing hazard outside the sub’s scope of work? Or, when it comes to safety, is every party on a construction site in effect its brother’s keeper? Are there risks and assumptions of liability involved when a party runs around behaving as a self-appointed safety sentinel?
As always, I welcome all comments below. And, I wish you a healthy and happy new year.
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Bruce Jervis, Editor
Construction Claims Advisor