July 2012 Archives

July 18, 2012

Construction Manager Liability: Part two

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As discussed in my last post, general contractors and construction managers have very different roles in a construction project. General contractors are sometimes sued when their subcontractor's employees are injured on the job, but that's not as often the case for construction managers. In addition, the liability analysis is quite different for construction managers because, unlike general contractors, construction managers do not have overall responsibility to perform the construction and they generally only contract with project owners, not with other subcontractors. A recent Indiana Supreme Court opinion, ("Hunt Construction Group, Inc. v. Garrett") ("Hunt")sheds light on the analysis of construction manager liability.

The opinion concluded litigation which had arisen out an accident which occurred during the construction of the Lucas Oil Stadium. In Hunt, a subcontractor's employee was injured and subsequently sued the construction manager ("Hunt"). The Hunt court based its analysis on Plan-Tec, Inc. v. Wiggins ("Plan-Tec"), the first reported case in Indiana where the employee of a subcontractor sued a construction manager. Indiana courts use Plan-Tec as a "template" to evaluate claims of negligence against construction managers for injuries suffered by subcontractors' employees, and the central test of the template specifically says that "a construction manager owes a legal duty of care for job-site employee safety in two circumstances: (1) when such a duty is imposed upon the construction manager by a contract to which it is a party, or (2) when the construction manager assumes such a duty, either gratuitously or voluntarily.'" Thus, a court will determine whether a construction manager is liable for the employee's injury based on the construction manager's contracts and actions, and only one of these is necessary to prove liability.

Three things in Plan-Tec led the court to find no contractual liability for the construction manager: (1) The construction manager's contract did not specify that the construction manager had any safety responsibilities, (2) the subcontractor's contracts clearly indicated they had responsibility for project safety and the safety of their employees, and (3) the subcontractor's contracts expressly disclaimed that the construction manager had any direct or indirect responsibility for project safety.

Unlike in Plan-Tec, in Hunt, the construction manager's contract did impose some general safety-related responsibilities on the construction manager. For example, Hunt was responsible for approving contractors' safety programs, monitoring compliance with safety regulations, performing inspections, and addressing safety violations. Hunt also had the ability to remove any employee or piece of equipment deemed unsafe. However, the court determined that none of the safety-related provisions imposed on Hunt a specific legal duty to or responsibility for the safety of all employees at the construction site. Instead, the contract included "clear language limiting [Hunt's] liability" which persuaded the court that the construction manager did not have a legal duty of care to subcontractor's employees for job-site safety. We will explore that specific contractual language which limited Hunt's liability in the next post.

But even if construction managers are not liable because of their contracts, they can still, by their actions or conduct, assume "a legal duty for job-site employee safety." In Plan-Tec, it was Plan-Tec's assuming of new supervisory duties beyond those required by the initial construction documents and after the project had already begun which raised the issue of whether it had assumed by its actions such a legal duty of care. For example, Plan-Tec took on extra responsibility by appointing a safety director, initiating weekly safety meetings, directing that certain safety precautions be taken by the subcontractors, and daily inspecting the scaffolding (which scaffolding ultimately injured the employee in that case). However, in Hunt, the court affirmed that the Plan-Tec ruling does not mean that a construction manager must avoid all such responsibilities in order to avoid liability for workplace injuries. In fact, Hunt had equally undertaken each of the previously mentioned actions taken by Plan-Tec. The difference was that, in Hunt's situation, none of these actions were beyond those required by the original construction documents, and (as discussed above) those documents limited Hunt's liability. This simple fact indicated to the court that Hunt did not by its actions assume a legal duty for the employee's safety. Because Hunt neither assumed a duty by its contracts nor its actions, Hunt prevailed.

Continue reading "Construction Manager Liability: Part two" »

July 5, 2012

Construction Manager Liability: Part one of a three-part series

Thumbnail image for iStock_000017631785XSmall.jpgWhen it comes to occupational injuries, the construction industry is among the most dangerous. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2010 there were more fatal occupational injuries in construction than in any other private industry sector. And when a worker is injured, it sometimes leads to a lawsuit.

In most cases, the workers' compensation statue (in Indiana, Ind. Code 22-3) restricts the amount an injured worker can recover from his or her employer to the amount of workers' compensation insurance, but it does not limit the amount the worker can recover from anyone else. See Ind. Code 22-3-2-13. For example, the workers' compensation statute does not prohibit an employee of a construction subcontractor from recovering from the general contractor or a construction manager. It is not uncommon for general contractors to be sued when their subcontractor's employees are injured on the job, and there are a number of reported cases in Indiana dealing with that type of claim. However, in the recent case of Hunt Construction Group, Inc. v. Garrett, the Indiana Supreme Court had an opportunity to address the liability of a construction manager. I'll discuss that case in the next couple of postings, but first let's look more closely at the difference between a general contractor and a construction manager.

Although the roles of construction managers and general contractors are sometimes confused, they are really very different. A general contractor has the obligation to the owner of a construction project to perform the work necessary to complete the project. In most cases, of course, a general contractor does not actually do all the work but rather subcontracts at least part of the work to one or more subcontractors (for example, to an electrical subcontractor or a mechanical subcontractor). In other words, the general contractor works for the owner, and the subcontractors work for the general contractor. The owner pays the general contractor for the entire cost of the project, and the general contractor pays the subcontractors out of the amount it receives from the owner. If a subcontractor makes a mistake, the general contractor is accountable to the owner for that mistake, just as if the general contractor made the mistake itself. Naturally, managing its subcontractors is an inherent part of a general contractor's job, and the general contractor has a great deal of direct control over the subcontractors.

Sometimes, however, the owner of a project hires a construction manager to oversee the construction project and to coordinate the work of all the various contractors and subcontractors on the project. Unlike a general contractor, a construction manager is not responsible for actually building the project. The construction manager essentially acts as the owner's on-the-site representative with responsibilities such as managing the budget, the schedule, and the contract documents; sending out bid requests and receiving bid submissions; approving subcontractors when they are hired; inspecting and approving the work; and more. There may also be a general contractor with responsibility for constructing the entire project, or the owner may contract directly with companies that would otherwise be subcontractors (e.g., electrical and mechanical subcontractors) without hiring a general contractor.

Either way, the construction contractors and subcontractors do not actually work for the construction manager; instead, they work either for the general contractor or directly for the owner. The owner does not pay the entire construction price to the construction manager; the construction manager receives only a fee, and the owner pays the construction contractors and subcontractors either directly or through the general contractor, if there is one. The only authority the construction manager has to do anything related the construction is in its capacity as the owner's agent.

In Hunt Construction Group, Inc. v. Garrett ("Hunt"), an employee of a subcontractor, Baker Construction Company, was injured and sued the construction manager, Hunt, claiming that Hunt was vicariously liable for Baker's actions and that Hunt negligently breached its own duty of care for job-site safety. In the next entry, we'll see how that case came out, and in the third entry we'll look at things a construction manager can do to minimize its exposure to liability for injuries to construction workers.

Continue reading "Construction Manager Liability: Part one of a three-part series" »