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Dzabiev v. Rom

A-2352-04T1 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2006) (Unpublished)

LANDOWNERS LIABILITY; NEGLIGENCE—A landowner, not acting as a general contractor, is under no duty to protect an independent contractor from the very hazard created by doing the contract work.

A couple hired a home repair contractor to paint the interior walls and to refinish the wooden floors of a two-unit apartment building. The contractor purchased and supplied all of the floor refinishing materials required for the second-floor job. The couple supplied only paint and was not aware of what materials were to be used for the floor refinishing. Nor, did the couple tell the home repair contractor what type of finish they wanted on the floors.

In addition to the work the home repair contractor had been hired to perform, the couple was also remodeling the kitchen in the second-floor apartment. As part of that remodeling work, the gas stove was removed. Before the work on the second-floor apartment was completed, the couple, being satisfied with the quality of the home repair contractor’s work, hired him for additional work to paint the interior walls and to refinish the floors of the first-floor apartment. The gas stove in the first-floor apartment was left in place and the pilot light remained lit. One day, as the home repair contractor was completing the refinishing of the floors, an explosion occurred. The contractor sustained burns over almost his entire body, which tragically caused his death several days later.

The home repair contractor’s wife unsuccessfully sued the couple. She appealed from the lower court’s summary judgment dismissing her complaint.

On appeal, the Appellate Division found that despite the contractor’s informal manner of conducting business, the circumstances of his hiring, and the manner in which the job was undertaken, he was an independent contractor. It also found that the couple owed the contractor a reasonable safe place to do the work.

In her appeal, the contractor’s wife argued that the lower court should have allowed a jury to decide whether the couple breached their duty by not warning her husband, the contractor, of the pilot light or the need to turn off the gas supply. In response to the contractor’s wife’s argument, the Court first explained that the couple could not be considered general contractors because they did not supervise the contractor. It stated the principle that: “[A] landowner is under no duty to protect an independent contractor from the very hazard created by doing the contract work.” To that end, the Court found that the flammability of the material used by the contractor was inherent in the work he was hired to perform. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the judgment of the lower court.

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