Court of Appeals Grants Property Owners Judgment as a Matter of Law – Jury Verdict Reversed in Premises Liability Action

04/21/2015 / Bryan J. Huntington

Minnesota courts continue to define the extent to which landowners must take steps to protect the safety of independent contractors on their property. In Smith v. Wells Concrete Prods. Co., No. A14-0644, 2015 Minn. App. Unpub. LEXIS 115 (Minn. Ct. App. Feb. 2, 2015), a divided panel of the Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed a jury verdict in favor of a contractor injured while working on land owned by the company that hired her. The decision is an important precedent for landowners facing premises liability suits because it arguably narrows the duty of care landowners owe to experienced contractors performing work on their property.
In Smith, Wells Concrete Products Co. hired Smith to paint a new production facility owned by Wells. Smith was an experienced painter who had received training from the Occupational and Safety Hazards Administration (“OSHA”) regarding lifts and scaffolding equipment. Smith provided her own safety equipment for the Wells job, with the sole exception of Wells providing a scissor lift. Wells gave Smith wide discretion to complete the job on her own.
At one point during the project, Smith began painting the ceiling and walls above a narrow corridor. The first floor rooms and the corridor were approximately twelve feet in height. Plywood covered the top of the rooms on each side of the corridor to form a deck from which people worked. There were no railings on the deck along the corridor edge. Smith did not believe she could use the scissor lift in the corridor, so she laid scaffolding planks across the opening to create a bridge. Smith knew that, when using scaffolding equipment, safety railings were required, but she did not use them. While painting, it seems that Smith may have fallen while crossing over the scaffolding planks, which caused her substantial injury.
At trial, Wells argued it was not negligent because it owed Smith no duty of care, but the jury found Wells negligent. On appeal, a key issue was whether Wells should have anticipated the danger, even though the danger of falling from the planks was known and obvious to Smith. The court of appeals said no, concluding that Wells had reasonably relied upon Smith’s taking necessary safety precautions or, at the very least, relied upon Smith’s notifying Wells if she needed additional safety equipment. The court specifically cited Smith’s experience and training as supporting Wells’s reliance. Furthermore, because Smith had discretion as to how to conduct the painting (e.g., what equipment to use and when to paint) Wells had no reason to know Smith would use scaffolding planks in the way that she did. This was particularly true given that Wells had provided Smith a scissor lift. The danger of falling from the roof deck without using fall protection equipment or requesting additional equipment was also open and obvious. The court also cited Smith’s participation in creating the danger as another reason why Wells owed her no duty.

One judge of the court of appeals dissented. The dissent found significant that the landowner had constructed safety railings to ensure the safety of other subcontractors in several other areas of the project, including at an elevated catwalk with an exposed drop-off. The dissent cited the landowner’s building other guardrails as evidence that the landowner anticipated the risk of harm notwithstanding the obviousness of the risk.

Smith holds two very important lessons for landowners. First, hiring an experienced contractor may significantly lessen potential liability when injury occurs on the property. After all, as the court of appeals has recognized, experienced contractors are hired in part because of their background confronting the dangerous task that they are hired to perform. Second, landowners should be cautious about dictating the precise manner in which a contractor performs a task. If, for example, Wells had directed Smith to lay the floor planks, it seems likely the verdict in Smith’s favor would have been upheld because Wells would then have been required to anticipate the danger notwithstanding its obviousness to Smith.