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Hotel Found to Have No Liability for Painting Contractor Injured Due to Fall Off Ladder

By on December 4, 2020 in Negligence with 0 Comments

Plaintiff Andres Prieto (as part of a team of contractors) was hired by the Defendant EH Associates, LLC d/b/a Fairbridge Inn & Suites to place sheetrock over skylights in the hotel’s ballroom and paint the ballroom’s walls. In the course of performing these services, he fell off his ladder and suffered injuries. The issue in Prieto v. EH Associates, LLC d/b/a Fairbridge Inn & Suites, 2020 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 2315 (App. Div. Dec. 3, 2020) was whether the Defendant hotel breached any duty to Plaintiff who Defendant claimed was an independent contractor.

According to the facts, Plaintiff worked full time as a spray painter for a company. At the time he suffered his injuries at the Defendant hotel, he, another individual (Romero) and two others were performing side jobs generally involving painting for various customers. Romero described this group as a “team” which supplied its own equipment for the side jobs.

The Defendant owned an East Hanover hotel. At the time, Plaintiff suffered his injuries, the hotel did have an on-site manager and his responsibilities included hiring independent contractors to perform work at the hotel. The manager hired Romero to place sheetrock over skylights in the hotel’s ballroom and paint the ballrooms walls. Before accepting the job, Romero spoke with Plaintiff to determine whether the team could perform the job because Plaintiff was more familiar with this type of work that was required. Plaintiff, Romero and three others worked in the ballroom for 3-4 days without incident. They used ladders each day to perform the work and no hotel employees supervised their work.

On the morning of the accident, the group arrived at the hotel. One member of the team opened a side door to permit Plaintiff to enter the ballroom with their materials. There were no hotel employees in the ballroom that morning. Once in the ballroom, the team placed plastic on the ballroom’s floor. Plaintiff set up a ladder and climbed up the ladder to spackle it. The ladder was owned by Romero and had been used previously on the team’s other jobs and during the team’s prior day’s work in the ballroom. About 20 minutes later after he began spackling, Plaintiff fell off the ladder. Plaintiff was not sure what caused him to fall because his eyes were focused on the ceiling not the floor. There was no evidence establishing that a physical condition of the hotel caused Plaintiff to fall.

The case was presented to the trial court judge for dismissal based upon a summary judgment motion. The Defendant hotel argued that it did not owe a duty to Plaintiff because Plaintiff was an independent contractor who brought his own equipment and suffered injuries after failing to properly secure the ladder that his team brought to perform work at the hotel. Further, the Defendant argued that there was no evidence that it supervised or controlled Plaintiff’s work or established that there was any issue concerning Plaintiff or the team’s competency as independent contractors.

On the other hand, Plaintiff argued that Defendant violated a duty to Plaintiff because it supervised Plaintiff, permitted work to proceed in an unsafe work environment, the work was dangerous and the Defendant had a responsibility to ensure that any of the workers were competent to perform the work before hiring them. The trial court rendered an opinion that, based upon the facts, the Defendant had hired Plaintiff and his team as independent contractors, the hotel never controlled the means and methods of Plaintiff’s work and they did not supervise Plaintiff’s work. There was no reason for Defendant to believe that Plaintiff was not competent to do this work. The court determined that Defendant was entitled to Summary Judgment as a matter of law because “a landowner is under no duty to protect a contractor’s employee from the very hazard created by doing the contract work.” Thus, the trial court entered an order granting Summary Judgment to the Defendant hotel.

This matter was appealed to the Appellate Division. The Court pointed out the well- settled law that “the difference between an employee and an independent contractor is…that ‘one who hires an independent contractor has “no right of control of the manner in which the work is done, (and the work) is to be regarded as the contractor’s own enterprise….’” To determine whether the individual is an independent contractor, the Court would look at whether the person had an independent business and contracts to do a piece of work according to his/her own methods without being subject to the control of the employer as to the means by which the result is to be accomplished.

The Appellate Division noted that the Defendant presented evidence that Plaintiff and the others comprising his team worked various side jobs for which they provided their own equipment and controlled all aspects of their work. When the team was hired to place sheetrock and paint the hotel’s ballroom, the Defendant did not discuss with the team how to perform the work, nor did the Defendant supervisor control the work performed by Plaintiff and the other members of the team in the ballroom. Further, it was undisputed that the Plaintiff, along with the rest of the team, provided their own equipment, was hired only for this specific span of time it took for the team to complete the job and that the work performed was not the hotel’s regular business.

The Appellate Division found that the trial court correctly ruled as a matter of law that Plaintiff was an independent contractor who carried on an independent business with Romero and the others using their own methods and equipment to perform the work. Although, a landowner has a non-delegable duty to use reasonable care to protect invitees against known or reasonably discoverable dangers, the landowner is under no duty to protect an employee of an independent contractor from the very hazard created by the doing the contract work. The rationale for this carve-out is that the “the landowner may assume that the independent contractor and [its] employees are sufficiently skilled to recognize the dangers associated with their task and adjust their methods accordingly to ensure their own safety.” This exception would not apply when the landowner retained control over the manner and means of the independent contractor’s work, when the landowner hires an incompetent contractor or when the activity constitutes a nuisance per se.

The Appellate Division found that in this case, the Defendant “had no duty to protect Plaintiff from the very hazard created by doing the contract work because the team was comprised of independent contractors” and Defendant “did not retain control over the manner and means of the team’s work.” The facts were undisputed that there was no instruction given to Romero, the team, or Plaintiff on how to perform the work; the Defendant did not supervise the team or its work; and the team used its own equipment, including the ladder from which Plaintiff fell. Thus, Defendant did not control the means and methods of Plaintiff’s work or supply the equipment and there was no evidence that Defendant was aware of the risk of harm Plaintiff created for himself by climbing the ladder he supplied to perform his work.

Thus, the Appellate Division upheld the trial court’s ruling, granting Summary Judgment to the Defendant and dismissing the complaint.

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About the Author

About the Author:

Ms. Ramos is an Executive Committee Member and Co-Chair of the Litigation Department at Capehart Scatchard, P.A. located in Mount Laurel, New Jersey. She is an experienced litigator with over 25 years experience handling diverse matters. Practice areas include tort defense, business litigation, estate litigation, tort claims and civil rights defense, construction litigation, insurance coverage, employment litigation, shareholder disputes, and general litigation.

For the years 2020 and 2021, Ms. Ramos was selected for inclusion in The Best Lawyers in America© in the practice area of Litigation - Insurance. The attorneys on this list are selected based upon the consensus opinion of leading lawyers about the professional abilities of their colleagues within the same geographical area and legal practice area. A complete description of The Best Lawyers in America© methodology can be viewed via their website at: https://www.bestlawyers.com/methodology.

In 2021, Capehart Scatchard and Ms. Ramos received the “Best Law Firm” ranking in the area of Litigation – Insurance (Metro, Tier 3) published by U.S. News & World Report and Best Lawyers®. Law firms included on the list are recognized for professional excellence with consistently impressive ratings from clients and peers. To be eligible for a ranking, a firm must have at least one attorney who has been included in the current edition of Best Lawyers in America, which recognizes the top five percent of practicing lawyers in the United States. Betsy Ramos (Litigation – Insurance) was recognized for this prestigious award in the 2021 edition. For a description of the “Best Law Firm” selection methodology please visit: https://bestlawfirms.usnews.com/methodology.aspx.

“Best Law Firms” is published by Best Lawyers in partnership with U.S. News & World Report. For a description of the selection methodology please visit: https://bestlawfirms.usnews.com/methodology.aspx.

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