Attention Contractors and Subcontractors: You Have a Duty to Report Hazards...Even If You Did Not Create Them

Posted by Jennifer L. Gregg on Mar 18, 2015

Graniterock’s legal team recently reviewed a case that offers an important reminder to all construction contractors – California law imposes a duty to report jobsite hazards to the project owner or general contractor, even if you did not create the hazard. That reminder comes from the 2009 California Court of Appeal case of Miguel Suarez v. Pacific Northstar Mechanical, Inc. (PNM), which found a construction contractor that knew of a jobsite hazard, but kept quiet about it, could be held liable for injuries sustained by any worker at the jobsite who was later injured by the hazard.

In the Suarez case, the general contractor hired a subcontractor (PNM) to install heating, ventilation and air conditioning on a building remodel project. Before anyone began work on the project, an underground light fixture was installed on the project, and the fixture constituted a hazard under Cal-OSHA regulations. Neither PNM, the general contractor, nor any of the other subcontractors had been hired to install or work on the underground electrical fixture. During the course of PNM’s work, one of PNM’s employees received an electrical shock from the underground fixtureand sustained minor injuries. He reported it to his foreman but that PNM foreman did not report the incident to the general contractor or the project owner. A couple weeks later, two employees of the general contractor suffered injuries from the same underground fixture. The general contractor filed a lawsuit against the owner and PNM. 

The court found a duty to report or correct a dangerous condition in the Cal-OHSA safety rules, and cited Labor Code section 6400, finding that PNM was an exposing employer because its employees were exposed to the hazard. The court further extended the coverage of Section 6400 to any employee on site, regardless of whether it was PNM’s employee. 

The lesson of this case is that any subcontractor on a multi-employer worksite can be held liable for failure to report a known nonobvious hazard that injures a worker on the site, regardless if the condition was caused by that subcontractor or if the worker who was injured was employed by that subcontractor. It’s a reminder to all of us on construction projects that reporting any unsafe or hazardous conditions to the project general contractor or owner is both a requirement to avoid civil liability and the right thing to do.

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