gavel.gif (3462 bytes) Workplace safety

Supreme Court: Contractors have no 
safety responsibility when not in control of site

The state Supreme Court says contractors are not responsible for the safety of their subcontractors when they are not in control of the site. That was the ruling in a personal injury action brought by Harold and Angela Leonard. Leonard appealed to the Supreme Court a Commonwealth Court decision denying a motion to vacate compulsory nonsuits and directed verdicts.

According to the court opinion, Harold Leonard was injured in 1988 by falling 40 feet from a bridge he was working on in Delaware County. PennDOT had hired a subcontractor to help with the roadwork on Interstate 476. That subcontractor subsequently hired another subcontractor, who in turn subcontracted Leonard�s employer, Cornell and Company, to erect steel for the bridges involved in the construction project.

While doing his job, Leonard fell from the bridge, injuring his back and right elbow. The opinion states that there was no safety net below the work area, however Leonard was wearing a safety belt, which he failed to attach to a safety device.

Leonard claimed that his injuries were a result of inadequate safety equipment and procedures, and sued all the subcontractors, as well as PennDOT. He argued that each defendant had a responsibility to provide a safe workplace, which they negligently breached. Compulsory nonsuits or directed verdicts were granted at trial in favor of the defendants. The trial court stated that sovereign immunity protected PennDOT from liability, and that Cornell was not subject to negligence claims under the Workmen�s Compensation Act. The court said that the company in charge of safety inspections was only under contract to perform inspections when requested by PennDOT, and they had not been asked to inspect the bridge. The court also ruled that the other companies had no involvement in the erection of the steel and they had no personnel on site, so they had no control over the site. The companies had delegated safety responsibility to Cornell in the contract with the company.

On appeal, the Commonwealth Court affirmed the trial court�s decision. The state Supreme Court, in its opinion, stated that "Logically, safety responsibility best rests on the subcontractor doing the work, for that party is most familiar with the work and its particular hazards."

In affirming the Commonwealth Court decision, the Supreme Court said, "a subcontractor who undertakes a task is in the best position to provide for the safe accomplishment thereof, and delegation of safety responsibility to that subcontractor does not deviate from the contractor�s duty."

The ruling held that since the other subcontractors had no control over the site, they could not be held responsible for the safety of those working on the site.


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