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Landowner’s Responsibility to Independent Contractor’s Employees in Pennsylvania

In a recent non-precedential case, a man appealed from an order granting summary judgment to Thiele Manufacturing. The man was hurt while working for his employer American Roofing, Inc. He fell through a fiberglass skylight on the roof of a building owned by Thiele, a Pennsylvania corporation that manufactures dump trucks and did not have roofing expertise. The roofing company was Thiele’s independent contractor.

The man sustained serious injuries from his fall and sued personal injury. He was an experienced roofer and when asked if that roof was more dangerous than other roofs he had been on, the man testified at trial that he used the same precautions on all his jobs. He testified that Thiele did not supervise him, but that his employer American Roofing did.

Thiele filed a motion for summary judgment after discovery. The trial court granted the motion. The worker appealed on the grounds that his work had involved a peculiar risk of harm under the Restatement (Second) of Torts § 416. He argued that the saw-tooth fiberglass roof was more dangerous than most because of its design and that Thiele knew of the risk and failed to make sure that American Roofing took the necessary precautions.

The appellate court explained that if there was evidence that would have allowed a fact-finder to render a verdict in favor of the worker in this case, it would find that summary judgment should have been denied.

The worker argued that the roof had an unusual saw-tooth design and the skylights were located on a slanted pitch where workers would walk. This was different than a 90-degree angle, which was safer. In the worker’s view, this angle made his roofing work for Thiele particularly risky and Thiele should have taken measures to make sure special precautions were taken.

The appellate court agreed. It explained that a possessor of land (like Thiele) owes different duties of care to a visitor depending on whether the visitor is a trespasser, licensee or invitee. An employee of an independent contractor (like the roofer in this case) is an invitee owed the highest standard of care of any person who came onto the land.

In Pennsylvania someone who possess land will be subject to liability for physical harms only if he (1) knows or should know through reasonable care of a dangerous condition, (2) should expect the invitee won’t discover or realize danger or may fail to protect himself against the risk, and (3) fails to exercise reasonable care to protect the invitee from the dangerous condition. There is no general duty for Pennsylvania property owners to maintain a safe building for the benefit of independent contractor’s employees.

The worker argued that there is an exception to the general rule for “peculiar risks” and “special dangers.” If someone employs an independent contractor to do work with a peculiar risk of harm in Pennsylvania, that someone can be subject to liability for physical harm caused by the contractor’s failure to take precautions. The peculiar risk must be foreseeable at the time of a contract’s execution for the doctrine to apply.

The worker claimed that Thiele knew American Roofing wasn’t complying with OSHA’s fall protection requirements. The trial court had used the fact that the danger of a sloped roof should have been obvious to a roofer to grant summary judgment.

The court explained that this court was unique and did crate a peculiar risk that was inherently dangerous. Most skylight installations were done with vertical or nearly vertical skylights. The sloped metal deck was deceptive.

During discovery, multiple witnesses had testified about how dangerous and unusual the roof was. The appellate court concluded a material issue of fact existed about the foreseeability of the risk. The order was reversed.

An experienced Pennsylvania personal injury attorney can evaluate the facts of your particular case if you are injured on somebody else’s property and bring a lawsuit on your behalf if appropriate. Contact the attorneys at Needle Law Firm at 570-344-1266 or via our online form for a free consultation.

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