Court ruling could expand contractors’ liability

Contractors typically face some liability for issues that arise after they finish their work for a property owner.

  • A Supreme Court ruling this week potentially expands that liability.
  • In a split opinion, justices ruled that a contractor could be held liable for allegedly defective work even if the property owner knew there was a problem.
  • Under previous legal interpretations, contractors were generally liable only if owners were not aware of a problem, said Ron Pollock, an attorney and chair of the construction law group at Lancaster-based law firm Saxton & Stump.
  • “In this case the court said, ‘That’s not really the issue anymore. We’re not really seeing that as a reason that the contractor gets off the hook,'” Pollock said.

What’s the case: It was filed by the widower and estate of a woman who died in 2015 from a traumatic brain injury after falling down the concrete entrance stairs of the 119-year-old Oil City Library in Venango County.

  • Oil City had hired contractors Fred L. Burns Inc. and Struxures LLC to repair the stairs in 2011, according to the court ruling.
  • But by 2012, the city was getting reports of imperfections in the concrete.
  • In 2013, city officials notified Burns, which had done the actual work, of “what it considered to be its defective workmanship in creating the dangerous condition of the stairs,” according to the ruling.
  • The stairs deteriorated between 2013 and 2015 but neither the city nor the contractors made any apparent efforts to fix them or warn people about the problems, according to the ruling.
  • After the death of his wife, Kathryn Brown, David Brown filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city and the contractors.

How did it go: The city eventually settled for $500,000, the limit for the municipality according to state law.

  • A county court ruled the contractors could not be held liable under state law since the city was aware of the stairs’ condition.
  • Brown appealed to Commonwealth Court, which found the contractors could be held liable.
  • A majority of Supreme Court justices agreed in a 37-page ruling that said the city’s knowledge of the problem should not absolve the contractors from potential liability.
  • “Mr. Brown is certainly pleased to have this legal issue resolved,” said Jamie Bordas, an attorney who represented the Browns. “It’s obviously been a long road.”
  • Efforts to reach attorneys for the contractors were not successful.

Was there a dissent: Yes.

What’s next: The case heads back to Venango County court where it will now likely go before a jury, said Bordas.

  • Pollock, meanwhile, recommended that contractors start reviewing their insurance policies to gauge how their liability coverage would respond in light of the court ruling.
  • “It’s definitely an expansion of the potential duties owed by contractors after they complete a job,” he said.


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