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Medina v. BRW Limited Holdings, L.L.C.

A-5831-06T3 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2008) (Unpublished)

LANDOWNERS LIABILITY — Although landowners are not generally not responsible for harm to independent contractors resulting from the work they were hired to do, where a property owner assumes the duty of ensuring the contractor’s safety, but fails to observe that duty, it can be held liable for injuries to the contractor.

An independent contractor was frequently hired to refinish floors in individual apartments in buildings owned by two property owners through their business entities. The process involved the use of highly flammable stains and lacquers, and required that an apartment be vacant for seventy-two hours following each job. Because of the highly flammable substances involved, gas service for the apartments had to be shut off. If the apartment was occupied, all objects on the floors had to be removed. The contractor did not know how to turn off the gas for the building or the apartments and relied on the property owners to do so. An employee for one of the property owners usually took responsibility for turning off the gas. When the contractor arrived at an apartment to refinish the floors, he would check the stove and the hot water heater to see if the gas was on.

One day, the contractor arrived at an apartment to refinish the floor and noticed that there was a lot of piled up furniture remaining on the floors. He informed one of the property owners and returned to the apartment a second time but noticed that a lot of the furniture remained. The contractor came to the apartment a third time after being told by one of the property owners that the furniture had been removed and that the gas had been shut off. He opened the windows to the apartment but noticed that there was furniture blocking the stove and hot water heater. Relying on the fact that he was told that the gas was shut off, the contractor did not move the furniture to check the stove and instead began working on the refinishing project. Roughly four hours after starting the project, the hot water heater turned on and caused an explosion. The contractor suffered third degree burns on his face and upper body and lost dexterity in one hand.

He sued the property owners as individuals and sued their business entities for the injuries caused by the explosion. The lower court, on summary judgment, dismissed the contractor’s claims against the individuals and one of their companies. It found that the property owners had no personal liability for the debts of their companies and that the one company was not liable to the contractor. The contractor obtained a default judgment against the other company.

On an appeal brought by the contractor, the Appellate Division noted that landowners are generally not responsible for harm to independent contractors resulting from the work they were hired to do and that they could presume that contractors hired to perform a certain service were aware of the attendant risks involved. Here, however, the property owners assumed the duty of ensuring the contractor’s safety by making sure that the gas was shut off. Thus, the Court found that dismissal on summary judgment was inappropriate because of the factual issues concerning a possible breach of duty to the contractor. It also found that the property owners could not avoid personal responsibility as corporate officers or officials if their personal actions or negligence caused harm to a third party. Based on the Court’s findings and conclusions, the lower court’s dismissal of the contractor’s claims was reversed and the matter was remanded for further proceedings.


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