Massachusetts Homeowner Found to be Not Liable for Subcontractor’s Damages

The Massachusetts Appeals Court recently reviewed a case in which the defendant homeowner, Johnson, hired a contractor to remove several trees from her land. The contractor subsequently hired a subcontractor/crane operator, West, to help with the project. The crane was damaged during the work, and the crane operator sued the homeowner. The jury found in his favor. His case was before the Appeals Court to determine whether the homeowner was liable for his damages.

Johnson had several conversations with the general contractor about the exact location of her septic system, which was important for him to know in order to safely remove the trees. The contractor apparently conveyed information about the septic system to his subcontractor, the crane operator. The day the crane arrived, Johnson noticed that it was set up in the location of the septic system. Though she was a surprised, she did not interfere with his work.

Soon after, the crane’s outrigger pierced the septic system and the crane tipped over, causing damage to the crane and to the house. The crane operator sued Johnson, cliaming that she had a duty to warn him about the septic system.

The Appeals Court determined there was no duty. Even though Johnson may have been suspicious of the crane’s placement, she did not have a further duty to give warnings. She retained no control over the work in general, and crane operator’s work in particular. Her only duty to the general contractor was to give accurate information about the septic system, which she did. It was the responsibility of the original contractor to oversee the actions of the crane operator.

Accordingly, the crane operator’s case was dismissed. The case is West v. Johnson, Mass. App. Ct. No. 08-P-130 (2009). 

As a homeowner, how can I protect myself from these types of lawsuits?

An important consideration in determining liability is control: the less control you have over a situation, the less likely it is that you will be liable for damages. One of the many benefits of hiring a general contractor to help with a residential construction project is the shift of liability from you to the contractor. If a contractor agrees to oversee all aspects of subcontractor performance, the homeowner will likely have no direct contractual agreements with the subcontractors and, therefore, retain no control over their work.

Before hiring a contractor, be proactive. Ensure that they are registered with the state, and are carrying adequate insurance. Review the details of your contract, don’t be afraid to ask questions, and ask for proof of his/her registration and insurance certificates. Browse the additional links below for more tips on how to choose a contractor. 

Additional links:

Homeowners FAQ’s – The Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security
Choosing a Professional Contractor – The Eastern Massachusetts Chapter of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry

What if I have been involved in a construction accident?

The Massachusetts lawyers at Breakstone, White & Gluck, P.C., have extensive experience in the field of construction accidents. If you are concerned about your liability in the context of a construction project, or have been involved in a construction site accident, call us at 617-723-7676 (or toll-free at 1-800-379-1244). Let us help you get the best result in your construction accident case.