August 28, 2016

Liability for Independent Contractors

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Generally, employers and general contractors do not have a duty to supervise the work of an independent contractor to assure a safe workplace. The general rule in Indiana, therefore, is that general contractors are not liable for the negligence of independent contractors. However, exceptions do apply.

In a recent Court of Appeals opinion, Lamb v. Mid-Indiana Service Company, Inc., the court reversed the trial court’s ruling for summary judgment in favor of the general contractor. At the trial court level, the independent contractor sued the general contractor for negligence. The general contractor moved for summary judgment against the independent contractor, arguing that it owed no duty to the independent contractor to assure a safe workplace. The trial court agreed and ruled in favor of the general contractor, ending the lawsuit. The independent contractor appealed.

On appeal, the independent contractor argued that the general contractor assumed a legal duty for his safety because of their actions. The Court of Appeals agreed. The independent contractor was tasked with performing electrical work at a construction site. The general contractor’s site manager discussed the electrical work with the independent contractor. The independent contractor reported to the site manager that he would have to complete certain work before installing electrical cable, which required a trench to be dug.  However, a trench was dug before that initial work was completed, which required the independent contractor to perform some of his duties inside the trench. While working, the independent contractor was injured when part of the trench collapsed.

The Court of Appeals held that the general contractor either dug the trench themselves or directed someone else to do it. Consequently, the Court of Appeals found the general contractor to have created a condition in the workplace that posed an unreasonable risk of harm to the independent contractor. The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s order of summary judgment.

The Lamb opinion demonstrates how actions of the general contractor can create a duty of care for independent contractors which would not otherwise exist. Consequently, once a duty of care exists, general contractors are open to liability for negligence.