In Pennsylvania, generally owners are not liable for injuries of independent contractors if they did not control the means and methods of the contractor’s work. However, there is a notable exception to this rule. Known as the “peculiar risk” doctrine, it holds that a landowner owes a duty to warn an unknowing independent contractor of existing dangerous conditions on the landowner’s premises where such conditions are known or are discoverable to the owner. The question of whether a landowner owes a duty to warn an independent contractor of dangerous conditions on the premises turns on whether the owner possesses “superior knowledge” or information which places him in a better position to appreciate the risk posed to the contractor or his employees by the dangerous conditions. See Gutterige v. A.P. Green Services.
In Beam v. Thiele Manufacturing, the plaintiff Jason Beam was a roofer who fell through a rare skylight that was thought to be over 100 years old. The skylight was unique and shaped differently than modern versions, as was the roof itself. In fact, the roof was governed by specific OSHA regulations. Beam was an experienced roofer and was hired by Theile Manufacturing (the building owner) to modernize the roof. Despite his experience, Beam did not wear any fall protection while working on the roof, a fact which Theile was allegedly aware of.
The Somerset County Court of Common Pleas initially dismissed the action on the basis that Theile Manufacturing was insulated from liability under Pennsylvania premises liability law since the risk was obvious even to untrained workers. However, a split three-panel superior court led by Judge Sallie Mundy reversed the earlier decision; agreeing with Beam that the work on this unique roof and skylight involved a peculiar risk. They further agreed with Beam’s contention that Theile was aware of the special risk but failed to ensure that Beam took special safety precautions. As such, the summary judgment award for Theile was overturned and the case was remanded back to Common Pleas for trial.
This case should remain a reminder to all building owners that they are not completely insulated from liability to independent contractors. If you (or your insured) has particular knowledge about a dangerous risk on a property that may not be immediately obvious, it is important to make all visitors to the premises aware of this hidden risk.
Thanks to Remy Cahn for her contribution.
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