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Costa v. Bahammou

A-6235-07T1 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2009) (Unpublished)

CONTRACTORS; LANDOWNERS LIABILITY — As a general matter, landowners who invite independent contractors to come onto their property are under a non-delegable duty to exercise ordinary care to render safe those areas where its contractor might reasonably expect to be working and this requires the landowner to make a reasonable inspection to discover the defective and hazardous conditions and to give adequate warning and furnish such safeguards as may be reasonably necessary, but these obligations are relative to the nature of the invited endeavor.

Homeowners employed a contractor to perform work at their house. Part of the job entailed cutting down a tree. The contractor informed the homeowners that he had no experience cutting down trees and was apprehensive about doing so. According to the contractor, the homeowners told him “not to worry” and that they would provide the tools and all “safety” to cut the tree. The owners then left a ladder and chainsaw for the contractor to perform the work. The contractor broke his leg after he fell from the ladder while cutting down the tree. He sued the homeowners.

The lower court dismissed the action against the homeowners at the end of the trial testimony.

The Appellate Division reversed and remanded the matter for trial. It stated that “as a general matter, landowners who invite independent contractors to come onto their property are under a [non-delegable] duty to exercise ordinary care to render reasonably safe the areas in which the contractor might reasonably expect to be working.” This general duty [] required the landowner to make “reasonable inspection to discover defective and hazardous conditions.” In addition, the Court declared that “the obligation upon the landowner of either making the condition of his premises reasonably safe or giving adequate warning imposes upon him the duty to furnish such safeguards as may reasonably be necessary.” It noted, however, that these obligations are “relative to the nature of the invited endeavor” and did not necessarily encompass a duty to eliminate obvious and visible operational hazards, which was part of or incidental to the very work the contractor was hired to perform. It further noted that a court may also consider whether the landowner exercised control over the job location or directed the manner in which the delegated tasks were to be carried out. The Court stated that typically, the landowner may assume that the contractor is possessed of sufficient skill to recognize the degree of danger involved and to adjust his or her methods of work accordingly.

Here, the Court determined that had the contractor been experienced in tree removal, there would likely have been no basis for liability. However, it concluded that a jury could find, from the contractor’s testimony, that the owners were aware that he had no experience cutting down trees and that the contractor was concerned about the dangers of cutting down the tree. Accordingly, it held that the owners could not avail themselves of the presumption that the contractor was possessed of sufficient skill to recognize the degree of danger and could adjust his methods of work. The Court also held that the owners’ promise to provide tools and “safety” was functionally akin to retention of a sufficient level of control over the work to impose liability, even for the hazard created by the work itself. It also ruled that a jury could find that the owners failed to provide all the tools and all the safety equipment needed to cut the tree by leaving only the ladder and the chainsaw at the work site. Therefore, it determined that a jury could reasonably conclude that the owners’ failure to provide any other safety equipment or personal assistance violated their duty to furnish reasonable and necessary safeguards. Finally, the Court ruled that whether the contractor was comparatively negligent by proceeding alone and without safety equipment would also be a jury question.


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