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Third-party lawsuits and owner liability in construction accidents

| May 2, 2014 | Workers’ Compensation

While working on a construction site at an Illinois mall last December, two workers were seriously injured when a wall collapsed. One worker died in the hospital from injuries sustained during the accident. Although the manager of the mall maintained that the worker’s death was just a “tragic accident”, the surviving worker and the family of the deceased worker may be able to seek compensation from the property owner with a third-party lawsuit.

A complex industry

In construction, property owners are responsible for ensuring that a site is safe for contract employees. It is common for construction work to have a complex management hierarchy, involving multiple contractors and sub-contractors. This complexity can make it difficult for workers to allocate liability, as defendants often try to argue that the injured worker was an independent contractor and therefore not eligible for compensation. However, third-party lawsuits against property owners can be option for injured contracting workers under the presumption that the owner retains some control over the work.

Prior to 1995, Illinois construction law included legislation geared towards ensuring the safety of construction workers and determining liability in accidents. This legislation, known as the Structural Work Act, was repealed in February 1995. Since then, injured construction workers and their families have generally pursued compensation by means of common law negligence lawsuits.

Establishing liability under common law negligence

To successfully establish liability in a common law negligence lawsuit, an injured construction worker must demonstrate all of the following:

  • That the defendant owed the worker a duty
  • That the duty was breached in some way
  • That the breach of duty directly led to the worker’s injury
  • That the worker’s injuries resulted in damages

In the case of construction accidents, the defendant’s duty would involve ensuring safety on a construction site. If it can be shown that the defendant failed to provide adequate safety on a site, he or she would be liable for damages resulting from an accident.

Third-party lawsuits

Allocating liability can be challenging due to the numerous parties involved. However, in some cases, it is not a construction company but rather a property owner who is found responsible for injuries to a worker. Injured workers and their families can bring a third-party lawsuit against the property owner for personal injury compensation. If the court finds that the property owner had reason to believe that a job site was unsafe and did not warn the construction company, the owner will be held negligent and will owe the worker compensation for damages sustained.

In the news story mentioned earlier, the owner of the mall could be held financially responsible for the construction accident if it can be shown that he or she knew in advance that the wall might be unstable.