Are Homeowners Liable When Independent Contractors Get Hurt?

Are Homeowners Liable When Independent Contractors Get Hurt?This month, the California Supreme Court ruled in favor of renowned singer Johnny Mathis in a lawsuit filed by Mathis’s former window cleaner. Mathis hired the window cleaner for years to help keep the skylight on his roof clean. In 2012, the owner of the window cleaning service, Luis Gonzalez, was instructed by Mathis’s housekeeper to tell his workers to use less water while cleaning the skylight because water was leaking into the house, per Mathis’s request. Gonzalez also claimed that he informed Mathis’ staff that the roof needed to be repaired.

While walking between a parapet wall and the edge of the roof, Gonzalez slipped and fell to the ground. He sued Mathis for damages, but his case was ultimately dismissed because state law “has long presumed that when a landowner hires an independent contractor to perform work, the landowner delegates to the independent contractor all responsibility for workplace safety. The landowner consequently is not liable for injuries to the independent contractor and its workers caused by hazards known to the contractor.”

The same would likely be true here in Alabama, too. Homeowners can avoid liability if a contractor gets hurt on the job unless the homeowner is negligent in some way.

Can an injured contractor collect workers’ compensation?

It depends on who the contractor works for. Under state law, companies are not required to provide workers’ compensation benefits for contractors. That does not mean your company does not offer it; it simply means that your company may not, and legally, is not required to do so.

If you work for a company which does offer workers’ compensation, then you can make a claim for benefits. If you do not, then you would need to file a personal injury lawsuit to claim damages.

Can a contractor make a claim against a customer’s homeowners’ insurance?

Again, it depends. In the Mathis lawsuit, the court found that Mathis was not liable because Gonzalez knew the roof was dangerous, and therefore should have acted with care. Furthermore, because most homeowners hire independent contractors to fix problems with their homes, and trust those contractors to assess what damage exists regarding those known problems, it stands to reason that the “duty to warn” has been fulfilled.

There are, however, two ways that homeowners can be held liable in a premises liability lawsuit for any injuries that an independent contractor sustains while on the job:

1.     How the specific circumstances of the project can lead to liability

The specific circumstances of a project can include how much control the homeowner exerted over the independent contractor as the independent contractor was working on the project. Because an independent contractor is categorized as a worker who maintains full control of his or her work, the homeowner’s attempt to control the manner how the independent contractor completes the work could present an assumption that the independent contractor is the homeowner’s employee; after all, employers constantly manage the way in which their employees work.

Similar to an employer, once a homeowner decides to take on the responsibility of monitoring the way in which the independent contractor works, the homeowner has also taken on the responsibility of ensuring the safety of the independent contractor in the eyes of the law. Homeowners typically take a hands-off approach to repairs and renovations once the plans and payment are discussed and leave those matters to independent contractors.

2.     How the circumstances of the injury can leave a homeowner liable

A homeowner has an obligation to provide a reasonably safe space for independent contractors to work and they have an obligation to warn independent contractors of any hazards on the property that are not obvious. But what about other types of dangerous circumstances? If, for example, a roofer comes to fix a leak and is bitten by the homeowner’s dog, the homeowner could be liable for those injuries. The same is true if the contractor is hired to fix the electrical in the kitchen, and is injured because a loose cabinet door falls off its hinges and hits the contractor in the head, or if the homeowner is backing out of the driveway and hits the contractor with his or her vehicle.

In the first two cases, the dangers were neither known to the contractor nor discussed by the homeowner, meaning the homeowner could be liable for the injuries. In the third example, the claim would likely be filed through the homeowner’s car insurance as opposed to through homeowners’ insurance.

Can business owners be held liable for any injuries sustained by independent contractors?

Yes, they can – but it can be a challenge determining who can be held legally liable when an independent contractor is injured on the job. Whether the independent contractor engages in dangerous work or not, the business owner has an obligation to abide by a standard of care for all individuals frequenting their place of business.

Maintaining a safe environment is how business owners meet the requirement for the standard of care. Another way business owners can employ the standard of care is by issuing warnings about any danger. If a business owner fails to warn an independent contractor of any potential workplace hazards, that business owner can be held liable for any of the independent contractor’s injuries.

On the contrary, if a business owner warns the independent contractor of all hazards and takes special precautions to lessen the possibility of an accident occurring, the independent contractor will likely be unable to hold the business owner liable for any injuries.

Whether you were hurt in a slip and fall, a pool accident, or burned in a fire caused by someone else’s negligence, the trusted Huntsville premises liability lawyers at Martin & Helms can pursue justice on your behalf. You are encouraged to call us at 256-539-1990 or complete the contact form to schedule a free consultation to discuss your injury case at our offices in Huntsville or Decatur. We also serve injured clients in Decatur, Athens, Madison, and throughout North Alabama.