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Vasquez v. Brock

A-6565-00T2 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2001) (Unpublished)

LANDOWNER’S LIABILITY—Where a property owner hires a seemingly responsible tree removal contractor and an inadequately trained worker is killed when hit by a falling tree, the owner is not liable for the death because the worker was killed in the performance of the precise work that it had been hired to do, even if cutting down trees could be construed to be inherently dangerous.

A tree removal company’s employee was fatally injured when struck by a falling tree. His estate sued the owner who had hired the contractor to remove certain trees from its property. The owner had used the contractor on a prior job and believed it to be a responsible company. Also, the owner identified the trees to be removed, but in no way controlled or dictated how the trees would be felled. It was not present when the trees were taken down, and there was no evidence that the removal company had committed any prior acts which could be construed as negligent. The deceased worker had only been on the job for about a week and appeared to have been inadequately trained. The accident resulted, in part, from the company not providing enough guide rope, thereby requiring the employee to stand too close to the tree. When the tree unexpectedly fell, the employee could not get out of the way. The lower court held the property owner potentially liable for the actions of the tree removal company. It concluded that when “you are talking about removal of a 70-foot tree you’re talking about, in my judgment, a danger of a mishap. And under these circumstances the landowner is liable for the independent contractor’s negligence regardless of whether the contractor was exercising reasonable care.” The Appellate Court held that the lower court erred in its interpretation of the “governing law concerning a property owner’s vicarious liability for the negligence of an independent contractor.” A person hiring an independent contractor is generally not liable for the negligent acts of that contractor. “However, when the work is inherently dangerous there is an exception to the general rule and the property owner’s duty is nondelegable.” But there is also an exception to that exception. “The nondelegable duty of a property owner does not apply to employees of an independent contractor if the employees were injured doing the work they were employed to perform.” Here, the deceased employee was injured doing the very type of work he was employed to perform. It didn’t matter that his employer was negligent by failing to instruct him on proper safety precautions to fell a tree. It also didn’t matter if one assumed that “the work of felling a tree is inherently dangerous” because there is no authority to attach vicarious liability to a land owner for the independent contractor’s negligence. The decedent’s estate needed to demonstrate that the removal company was clearly incompetent and the property owner knew or should have known of that general incompetence. The record contained no such evidence. Also, the property owner could be held responsible if it maintained control of the work, but there were no facts to support such an allegation.

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