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Indiana Supreme Court Holds Contract Between Owner And General Contractor Created Duty To Injured Employee Of A Sub-Subcontractor

By: Jeff Kehl, Income Member.

On April 26, 2017, the Indiana Supreme Court held that a general contractor could be held liable for injuries sustained by an employee of a sub-subcontractor under the general contractor’s contract with a property owner.

In Ryan v. TCI Architects, 49 S02-1704-CT-253 (April 26, 2017), TCI Architects had contracted with Gander Mountain to remodel a Gander Mountain store in Lafayette, Indiana.  Under the agreement, TCI specifically agreed to “assume responsibility for implementing and monitoring all safety precautions and programs related to the performance of the Work” and to designate a safety representative to monitor these safety precautions. In addition, the agreement provided that TCI would “exercise complete and exclusive control over the means, methods, sequences and techniques of construction.”

TCI hired Craft Mechanical as a subcontractor and, in turn, Craft hired B.A. Romines Sheet Metal to perform heating and ventilation work on the project.  Plaintiff was an employee of Romines.  During the project, Plaintiff fell off of a ladder and sustained serious injuries.  He sued TCI and Craft alleging that they were liable because they allowed him to work with a ladder that was not tall enough to safely accomplish his work.

Plaintiff filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that TCI and Craft breached their contractual duty to provide him with a safe workplace.  TCI moved for summary judgment asserting that, as a general contractor, it had no duty to Plaintiff and that TCI’s contract with Gander Mountain did not create a contractual duty to Plaintiff. The trial court denied Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment and granted TCI’s motion.  The Court of Appeals affirmed.

On review, the Indiana Supreme Court noted that ordinarily, a general contractor does not owe a duty of care to an employee of a subcontractor.  However, under the “special duty” exception to this rule, a general contractor may assume such a duty contractually.  The court also observed that there were conflicting decisions from the Court of Appeals on the issue of whether an owner-general contractor agreement can create a non-delegable duty of care to an employee of a subcontractor.

Relying solely on its interpretation of the contract, the court held that a general contractor assumes a non-delegable duty of care to employees of a subcontractor and sub-subcontractors when the owner-general contractor agreement imposes the obligation for worksite safety on the general contractor and the general contractor has the obligation to enforce safety precautions and laws.  The court also held that the subcontract agreement between TCI and Craft and the sub-subcontract agreement between Craft and Romines did not relieve TCI of its contractually assumed safety obligations because those contracts were not included within the purview of the “four corners” of the contract with Gander Mountain.

Ryan is a significant case for all contractors in Indiana.  Boilerplate language imposing safety responsibility on a contractor creates a non-delegable duty to ensure a safe workplace for all employees within the scope of the work to be performed under the contract.  The court did not carve out any exceptions based on whether a contractor actually exercises authority over worksite safety or whether additional contractors or subcontractors had contractual obligations to the contractor for worksite safety.

  • by Chris Hoffmann
  • posted at 4:17 PM
  • 05/08/2017