Construction Manager Liability: Part two

July 18, 2012
By Michael Smith on July 18, 2012 3:30 PM |

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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.

So, the first basic question the court will answer in these cases is whether the construction manager contractually undertook a duty to act as the "insurer of safety for everyone on the project." The second basic question the court will consider is whether the construction manager gratuitously assumed, by its actions, safety-related responsibilities beyond those to which the construction manager originally agreed.

In the next post, we will apply the lessons from Plan-Tec and the recent Hunt case in explaining some practical ways construction managers can avoid unexpected liability.

As previously mentioned, Construction Agreements are one of our practice areas. If you are a project owner, constructor, engineer, or architect, and are interested in obtaining sound legal and business advice, please feel free to contact us. Together, we can set up an initial consultation to discuss your situation and how we can devote our knowledge and experience to serving you.

Michael Smith, Attorney at Law
John Burkhardt, Legal Assistant