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Appellate Division, In Reversing Dismissal of Personal Injury Case Against University, Reaffirms Principle That Landowners Have a Duty to Warn Independent Contractors of Latent Defects

October 23, 2019

ROBERT B. SPAWN reports on a recent unpublished decision from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division. 

In a recent New Jersey case, a Defendant-University hired an electrical services company as an independent contractor to repair lights on the roof of its library, and Plaintiff (an employee of the electrical services company), was injured during the course of his work. 

 

On the date of the incident, Plaintiff attempted to access the roof by using a bucket truck (as was his custom), but a car of one of the University’s employees was preventing Plaintiff from accessing the roof in such a manner.  Plaintiff was thus forced to find an alternate way to the roof, and, while en route, Plaintiff leaned on a balustrade (a cast-stone railing) in order to retrieve pliers that another worker had tossed to him.  The balustrade then suddenly gave way, and Plaintiff fell, sustaining serious injuries.

 

The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the University, and found that the University had no duty to warn Plaintiff of the dangerous condition.  Plaintiff appealed.

 

The Appellate Division began its analysis by noting significant portions of testimony from a representative of the University in the record below.  The University’s representative testified that the University had repaired the balustrades before Plaintiff’s incident.  More specifically, prior to Plaintiff’s incident, the University had apparently caulked “the upper facing joints” of the balustrades in order to prevent water from deteriorating the joints and making the balustrades unstable.  Accordingly, given this testimony, it was clear that the University had notice of an existing dangerous condition prior to Plaintiff’s incident.  However, despite preventing Plaintiff’s use of the bucket truck on the date of the incident (and thus forcing him to use the alternate route), the University offered nothing in the way of a warning concerning the instability of the balustrades, and never informed Plaintiff or anyone else about previous repairs to the area.  The Court also emphasized that the unstable balustrades were not visible to Plaintiff, and were unrelated to his electrical repair work.

 

The Appellate Division then noted the well-established legal principle that a landowner has “a duty to provide a reasonably safe working place” for an independent contractor.  And, importantly, this duty includes the obligation to reasonably inspect and discover defective and hazardous conditions (and the obligation to warn independent contractors of same).  Moreover, although the University did not have a duty to warn Plaintiff of known hazards related to his electrical repair work, the unstable balustrades did not fall into that category (i.e., the unstable balustrades were not merely “incidental” to the work Plaintiff was hired to perform).  Indeed, the cast-stone balustrades appeared stable to Plaintiff, and only the University knew about the previous repair work.  Accordingly, because the dangerous condition was “latent” or “hidden,” the Appellate Division found that the University had a duty to warn Plaintiff of the condition, and thus reversed the decision granting summary judgment to the University and remanded the matter back to the lower court for trial.

 

Please contact Robert B. Spawn if you have any questions or need assistance in connection with this subject.