Lift with your Legs! General Contractor not Liable for Sub’s Employee’s Injuries (NJ)

In Knopka v. Fred Schiavone, et. al., plaintiff was injured while moving stone lintels during the construction of a child development center. The general contractor (“Schiavone”) hired plaintiff’s employer, J. Palermo Masonry (“Palermo”) to install the lintels above windows. Greyhawk North America, LLC (“Greyhawk”) was the construction manager responsible for budgeting, scheduling and monitoring of Schiavone’s safety program. Defendant Paul Brothers delivered thirty lintels to the site, each weighing between 210 and 425 pounds. Palermo would then transport the lintels by fork lift closer to the windows for installation. Due to the minimal space between the lintels, the fork lift was unable to lift them from the pallets. The plaintiff was sliding the lintels so they could be accessed by the fork lift when he injured his back.

Plaintiff’s expert opined that Schiavone knew moving lintels in this manner could cause injury as evidenced by the implementation of its safety policy instructing  workers on heavy lifting. The expert also asserted that Grayhawk was responsible for job-site safety and that Paul Brothers failed to properly space the lintels and warn of their heavy weight. The Trial Court granted Schiavone and Greyhawk’s motions for summary judgment finding no breach of duty as they were not advised of Palermo’s method of moving the lintels prior to plaintiff’s acitivites. The Court also granted summary judgment to Paul Brothers finding that the lintels were not deficiently designed or manufactured and because the risk of manually lifting the lintels was obvious. Plaintiff appealed the grant of  summary judgment to all three defendants.

The Appellate Division affirmed the summary judgment orders. Traditionally, a general contractor’s immunity from liability for the personal injuries of a subcontractor’s employee can be disturbed only when the general contractor retains control over the means and methods of the work being performed. Here, however, it was clear that Palermo, rather than Schiavone, retained control over transporting the lintels. There was also no foreseeable risk of injury; if a lintel was too heavy, it would be expected that a worker would not lift it. Moreover, Schiavone assured that Palermo received its safety policy which provided guidelines for heavy lifting. The Appellate Division found that imposing a duty on Schiavone to do more than remind Palermo of the obvious would not be fair. As to Grayhawk, the evidence did not demonstrate that its monitoring was inadequate. The Appellate Division also held that additional warnings were not required by Paul Brothers as the weight of the stone should have been self-evident.

Common sense prevails:  don’t forget to lift with your legs!

Thanks to Andrew Marra for his contribution to this post.  If you have any questions, please email Paul at pclark@wcmlaw.com