General Contractors and OSHA Violations!

N.C. Court of Appeals Ruling Limits General Contractor Liability! In a unanimous decision made December 8, 2009, the North Carolina Court of Appeals limited general contractor liability for certain injuries of subcontractors. Specifically, the court’s ruling in Pike v. Fiore Construction Services, Inc., holds that a general contractor’s violation of OSHA regulations does not give rise to tort liability – at least, not unless the facts give rise to a legal duty owed by the general contractor to the plaintiff.

The issue came before the Court of Appeals when the plaintiff appealed the trial court’s summary judgment ruling in favor of the defendant general contractor. The plaintiff, an employee of a subcontractor, was working on an unguarded platform when he fell off the platform. He landed on a concrete floor approximately 10 feet below and sustained a traumatic brain injury. In his suit, the plaintiff claimed that the general contractor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) violations caused his injuries and that this OSHA violation should give rise to tort liability for the injuries.

This plaintiff was fighting somewhat of an uphill battle because North Carolina case law holds that general contractors usually are not liable for injuries sustained by a subcontractor’s employee – they do not even have a legal duty to furnish subcontractor’s employees with a safe workplace. Exceptions to the rule do exist where:

1) the general contractor retains control over the manner and method of the subcontractor’s work,

2) where the work is deemed to be inherently dangerous, and

3) where the situation involves negligent hiring or retention of the subcontractor by the general contractor.

In Pike, the plaintiff did not argue that his claim fell within one of these exceptions but instead claimed that general contractors have a duty to comply with all applicable safety requirements and regulations and that this duty extends to subcontractor employees.

The Court of Appeals disagreed and emphasized the requirement for a legal duty, which is essential to most tort claims. On the issue of whether a duty had arisen, the court distinguished Pike from Cowan v. Laughridge Construction Co., a 1982 case in which a general contractor was held liable when a roofing subcontractor’s employee was injured after falling off a ramp. The general contractor in Cowan had a duty to the employee because the general contractor had furnished this ramp as the only means to access the building’s roof. The platform in Pike, on the other hand, was furnished by the subcontractor’s employees and was not the only means to access the roof. The court found this distinction was key in affirming summary judgment for the general contractor in Pike.

Again, an OSHA violation, without more, is not enough to sustain an action in tort against a general contractor. This decision reaffirmed the already narrow rules on general contractor liability to employees of subcontractors.

If you have any questions regarding this topic or any other construction related issue, please contact Caroline Lindsey, Attorney at Anderson Jones, PLLC at 919-277-2541 or by email!