When a General Contractor Can Be Liable in Illinois to a Subcontractor’s Employee for a Workplace Safety Issue

Snow in ChicagoIn some cases, a subcontractor’s employee who is hurt at work due to inadequate job site safety measures may have limited avenues of recovery. That is not always the case, however. Sometimes, the specific factual details of a case may dictate that the site’s owner or the general contractor may be liable for the worker’s injuries. In one recent case from the First District Appellate Court, that’s what happened. The general contractor had retained control over safety measures at the work site, so, when a subcontractor’s employee slipped and fell on a snow-and-ice-covered roof, the appeals court concluded that the worker should be allowed to pursue his claim against that general contractor.

The case arose from an accident that featured, in a somewhat prominent role, the sort of weather that Chicagoans typically associate with mid-January:  snow and temperatures below freezing. In 2010, Modern Process Equipment decided to expand its Chicago factory. Modern hired United Insulated and Structures Corp. as the general contractor on the project. United hired Lino & Poli Plumbing as a subcontractor to handle the plumbing work on the project. On a cold day in January, a United site superintendent sent Marvin Larsen, one of Lino’s employees, to the building roof to discuss installing stacks for the plumbing system. The temperature was below 25, and there were 2-3 inches of new snow on the ground. Five steps onto the roof, Larsen slipped and fell, injuring himself.

Larsen later sued Modern and United for his injuries. Both the factory owner and the general contractor asked the trial court to issue summary judgment in their favor. They argued that they never had a legal duty to ensure Larsen’s safety on the snowy roof, so they could not possibly be liable to him for his fall-related injuries. The trial court agreed and issued a judgment in favor of the defendants.

On appeal, though, the plumber won and received a renewed opportunity to recover compensation for the harm he suffered. While the appeals court agreed that Modern, as the building owner, did not have any legal duty to ensure Larsen’s safety, the same was not true of United, the general contractor. In many cases, Illinois law says that a general contractor is not liable for one of its subcontractors’ negligence toward the subcontractor’s employees. That rule does not hold true, however, if the general contractor “retains the control of any part of the work.” In that scenario, the general contractor can be liable if it failed “to exercise … control with reasonable care.” In other words, if a general contractor retains control over job site safety, the general contractor can be liable if it knew about a potential dangerous condition but did not act to address it.

That’s what went on in Larsen’s case. United, the general contractor, supervised the job and maintained oversight regarding job site safety. By failing to address the snowy and icy roof, it was negligent, and its negligence harmed Larsen. Larsen was able to strengthen his case and succeed on appeal because he had enough evidence to prove that the terms of United’s contract with his employer did not reflect what actually went on at the job site. The contract stated that all subcontractors were solely responsible for their employees’ safety. However, the plumber’s evidence demonstrated a different reality. In actuality, “United did supervise the safety of the roof and United retained exclusive control to remedy any weather-related dangerous conditions there.” Since the general contractor had assumed this role in practice, that triggered a duty to workers like Larsen. United knew about the slippery roof but did not address it. That gave Larsen a potential case against United.

When you’re injured at a construction site due to inadequate safety protections, it isn’t always clear who owed you a duty and is responsible for compensating you for your injuries. Skilled legal counsel can help with these and the many other decisions you must make as part of your case. The diligent and knowledgeable Chicago construction accident attorneys at Katz, Friedman, Eagle, Eisenstein, Johnson & Bareck have been helping injured workers for many years and are ready to assist you with your case. For a free case evaluation, contact us at 800-444-1525 or through our website.

More Blog Posts:

The Alarming Truth About Wrongful Death Cases in Illinois, Chicago Injury Attorneys Blog, Oct. 9, 2015

Four common construction site injuries, Chicago Injury Attorneys Blog, March 22, 2015

Photo credit: Mr. Granger, Wikimedia Commons