Wells v. Smith – Demolition Site Injury Claims Can Be Complex

Construction workers have some of the most dangerous jobs in the country. One of the most dangerous sub-categories of construction work is demolition.
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Earlier this year, after a series of demolition-related injuries and fatalities, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety & Health Administration noted far too many workers’ lives were risked or sacrificed because employers and/or property owners neglected demolition safety fundamentals. The official went on to say all employers of workers involved in demolition projects have to be aware of the hazards and necessary safety measures before such work begins.

The agency recently updated its standards and page on demolition dangers, entitled, “Demolition: Construction in Reverse, with Additional Hazards.”

Our Winston-Salem injury attorneys know while workers injured on-the-job may be entitled to collect workers’ compensation benefits, they may also want to explore a personal injury lawsuit against third party wrongdoers. Because the principle of exclusive remedy in workers’ compensation law limits options for legal action against employers with proper insurance, third-party liability lawsuits may be the only other chance a worker has for full recovery of damages.

One must know, however, that such cases may be complicated, as it may become difficult to establish “duty of care” by entities not directly responsible for the worker. Often, these cases are rooted in general negligence theories of law, which require property owners to keep a site reasonably safe for invitees and licensees.

The recent case of Wells v. Smith before the Rhode Island Supreme Court is one such example.

Here, a homeowner hired a construction contractor/defendant to build an addition on her home. During the course of construction, officials with the local Department of Environmental Management issued a notification the construction violated local zoning ordinances, and had to be removed. Soon after, defendant homeowner instructed defendant contractor to cease construction, and she opted to sell the property.

Another man offered to purchase the property, and enlisted his brother, plaintiff, to help with demolition. In so doing, plaintiff fell from the roof and sustained serious injuries.

Plaintiff sued defendants, alleging negligence, premises liability, negligent hiring, strict liability, negligent design, negligent construction and negligent inspection – all of which he said proximately resulted in his injuries.

Defendant homeowner filed motion for summary judgement, arguing she was not liable for the potential negligence of defendant contractor, who was independent. Further, she asserted she had no duty to maintain or repair the addition, and she wasn’t aware of any defect in construction. There was further no evidence of an abnormally dangerous condition. Defendant contractor later joined her motion for summary judgment, arguing plaintiff assumed the risk of his injury when he elected to climb on the roof and help with the demolition. He asserted a contractor can’t be liable to a third party once the contractor’s work is accepted.

Trial court granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment, and also ruled defendant contractor had no duty of care to plaintiff because he couldn’t have known or anticipated the roof would be dismantled and that he would have to make it safe to do so.

The Rhode Island Supreme Court ultimately affirmed this conclusion.

In order to ensure worker safety on demolition sites, OSHA recommends employers:

  • Plan ahead by having an engineering survey completed, one that accounts for the condition of the structure and the possibility of an unplanned collapse;
  • Provide proper protection and equipment to workers, including personal fall arrest systems and eye, face, head, hand and foot protection gear;
  • Train all employees about potential hazards and how to use safety equipment.

Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
Wells v. Smith, Nov. 24, 2014, Rhode Island Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:
Nguyen v. Western Digital Corp: On the Statute of Limitations in Personal Injury Cases, Oct. 14, 2014, Winston-Salem Injury Lawyer Blog

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