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General Contractor's Duty For Construction Site Safety

A frequently litigated issue of construction law pertains to the scope of the general contractor’s duties to the employees of a subcontractor who are injured or killed in accidents while performing their trades. Although the Supreme Court of Alabama addressed this issue in several opinions over the years, its April 9, 2004 opinion in Stovall v. Universal Construction Company, Inc., d/b/a Turner-Universal, 2004 WL 759258 (Ala.) provides an excellent discussion of the key issues involved in addressing the duties of a general contractor for the safety of subcontractors on construction sites.


In Stovall, the Supreme Court of Alabama considered the appeal of the surviving spouse of a painter killed when he fell from a ladder while painting a replica of the Saturn V rocket at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville.  Pertinent background facts presented to the Alabama Supreme Court included that Universal Construction Company, Inc. d/b/a Turner-Universal (“Turner”), the general contractor for construction of the rocket, subcontracted with Penwal, Inc. (“Penwal”) for assembly and erection of the rocket.  The subcontract between Turner and Penwal specifically provided that the general contractor would “furnish temporary lighting for night shifts sufficient to allow assembly.”


On the night of the accident which caused his death, Mr. Stovall was painting an interior section of the rocket utilizing a ladder and two lighting trees.  Each of the lighting trees had one bulb working and one dead bulb.  He climbed the untied ladder attempting to hook his lanyard onto a safety cable.  When he missed the connection and attempted to reconnect with the safety cable, the ladder shifted and he fell suffering injuries from which he subsequently died.  Mrs. Stovall sued the general contractor asserting claims of negligence and products liability.  The Circuit Court of Madison County, Alabama dismissed her claims by granting summary judgment in favor of Turner.  On appeal, the Supreme Court of Alabama reasoned that the threshold inquiry was whether the general contractor owed a duty to Mr. Stovall.  Citing its prior decisions, the Court recognized that generally a contractor owes no duty to the subcontractor whom he has employed.  However, the Stovall court recognized three exceptions to the general rule under Alabama law: (1) a general contractor is liable for injuries to a subcontractor’s employee caused by the general contractor’s own negligence; (2) a general contractor is liable for injuries to a subcontractor’s employee when the work performed is of such a nature that regardless of how carefully or skillfully it is performed it isintrinsically dangerous; or (3) the subcontractor’s employee is performing the nondelegable duties of a general contractor.


In analyzing whether Turner was liable as general contractor, the Alabama Supreme Court recognized that although Turner contracted to provide the Penwal employees with lighting, it did not correlate to a reservation of control over the manner in which the painters used the lighting.  Because no evidence existed that Turner controlled how Mr. Stovall used the lighting, the Court held that the general contractor was not liable on this issue.

Mrs. Stovall also argued that Turner as general contractor undertook responsibility for overall safety at the construction site.  The Supreme Court addressed this portion of her argument pointing out that a “general administrative responsibility for company-wide safety” does not establish liability on behalf of the general contractor for failure to provide a safe workplace. Because Penwal presented the safety plan for its painters to Turner, no evidence existed to establish that the general contractor controlled the safety plan which the painters were to utilize in performing their work.


Next, the Court addressed Mrs. Stovall’s argument that the work performed was intrinsically dangerous.  However, recognizing examples of work which it previously found to be intrinsically dangerous, including the application of caustic paint remover, the aerial spraying of pesticide, and the use of dynamite, the Alabama Supreme Court determined that painting from a ladder did not constitute intrinsically dangerous work.


Finally, the Court reviewed Mrs. Stovall’s claims that Turner was liable for negligent inspection of the construction site.  She alleged that Turner reserved the right to enforce safety and that Turner’s project manager monitored the construction site for compliance with plans and specifications.   Further, she alleged that the project manager looked for “blatant safety violations” and inspected the ladder from which the decedent fell after the accident.   Still, because no evidence existed to establish that Turner acted on its contractual reservation to inspect the premises, the Supreme Court concluded that its duty was no greater than that owed by a premises owner.  Recognizing that Turner, as general contractor, did not control the manner and method in which Mr. Stovall performed his work as a painter and that Mrs. Stovall failed to establish any evidence of one of the exceptions to the general rule that a general contractor does not owe a duty to a subcontractor, the Supreme Court of Alabama affirmed summary judgment in favor of Turner.


In light of this decision, general contractors and subcontractors should recognize that although a general contractor does not owe a duty to a subcontractor generally speaking, certain circumstances and exceptions, can create a duty.  Further, parties should recognize that although a contract may reserve a right to inspect the subcontractor’s work, this does not create a duty on behalf of the contractor absent the contractor actually undertaking the inspection.  Essentially, it is the conduct of the parties that is examined in determining whether the contractor controls the method and manner of the subcontractor’s work and not necessarily the contractual language between the parties for the purposes of liability analysis.  Of course, the end result is for all parties to become more aware of their duties in completing quality and safe construction projects and avoiding litigation.

Contributing Author:

James W. Moss
James W. Moss, Shareholder
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