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PA Supreme Court Holds That Property Owner Is Not Liable for Injuries to Contractor's Employee

Type of 'Control' Exercised by College Was Not Sufficient to Impose Liability

February 16, 2011

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has issued its long-awaited decision in Beil v. Telesis Construction Inc., in which Post & Schell's Appellate Department represented Lafayette College on appeal from a trial court judgment that had accrued to over $3 million. The case arose out of a 2003 construction accident that occurred during a building renovation project at the College. The College was successful in reversing that judgment in the Superior Court, and the Supreme Court has now upheld the Superior Court's ruling, returning the case to the trial court for the entry of final judgment in favor of the College.

The Supreme Court's decision reaffirms the general rule that when a property owner hires an independent contractor to perform work on the owner's premises, the property owner is ordinarily not liable for injuries to the employees of the contractor or its subcontractors. More significantly, the decision clarifies that the so-called "retained control" exception, pursuant to which liability can be imposed upon an owner if the owner retains control over the manner in which the work is performed, is a narrow exception to the general rule, and that an owner does not subject itself to liability under that exception by retaining some degree of authority over safety issues. Thus, for example, the fact that a property owner retains and exercises a right to inspect, or requires higher safety standards than what OSHA would require, or encourages workers to act in a safe manner, is not sufficient to impose liability on the owner under a "retained control" theory. Instead, the Supreme Court recognizes that "concern is not control."

Of further significance, the Court found a distinction between owner conduct that merely regulates certain aspectsof the work site, and owner conduct that constitutes control of the manner in which the work is performed. The fact that an owner controls, for example, where the workers may take breaks, where scaffolding is placed, or how and where workers may access the work site, is not qualitatively sufficient to establish control over "the means, method and operative detail in which the work is performed." Such owner actions are "tangential to the substantive work of the contractor" and do not establish control over that work.

The Supreme Court's conclusion is consistent with the College's argument that it would be contrary to public policy to impose liability on property owners for encouraging contractors to work safely. Instead of having a chilling effect on such owner conduct, the Court's decision advances the public policy interest in workplace safety by allowing owners to take action to promote worker safety without incurring "control" liability for doing so.

If you have any questions about the Beil case, or would like a copy of the Supreme Court's Opinion, please contact Teresa Ficken Sachs, Esquire, of Post & Schell's Appellate Department, who briefed and argued the appeals on the College's behalf. She may be reached at TSachs@postschell.com or at 215-587-6608.

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