Washington Supreme Court Significantly Limits General Contractors’ Liability for Jobsite Injuries to Subcontractor Employees

SafetyOwners and General Contractors generally have a duty to provide a safe workplace.  But does that duty mean that an Owner or General Contractor is automatically liable for the actions of its Subcontractors when a Subcontractor’s employee suffers an injury on a jobsite?

No, according to the Washington Supreme Court in Afoa v. Port of Seattle

When Is a General Contractor Liable for Subcontractors?

In Afoa, an airline employee was injured at SeaTac Airport.  Workers’ compensation laws barred a suit against his employer.  Therefore, Afoa sued the Port of Seattle, SeaTac’s Owner.  The jury returned a $40,000,000 verdict for Afoa.

At the Supreme Court level, SeaTac argued that it should not be responsible for the airline’s share of liability, because the Port was not exercising control over the airline.  In other words, it argued that it was not automatically liable for the airline’s share of fault.  Afoa argued the opposite.  He contended that the Port had a nondelegable duty to maintain a safe workplace and that nondelegable duty made the Port liable for the airline’s share of fault, regardless of whether it was exercising control over the airline.

The Court sided with the Port.  The Court noted that a jobsite Owner may have a nondelegable duty to maintain a safe workplace.  But, “a jobsite owner or general contractor will have this duty only if it maintains a sufficient degree of control over the work.”  And, in Afoa’s case, the facts did not show that the Port was exercising control over the airline, and therefore the Port was not liable for his injuries.

This ruling is especially relevant for General Contractors.  Workers’ compensation laws generally bar personal injury lawsuits between an injured employee and his or her employer.  But General Contractors typically do not enjoy that same protection from Subcontractors’ employees, because the General Contractor is not that employee’s employer.  Consequently, under Afoa the question of whether the General Contractor was exercising control over the workplace will play a substantial role in determining whether it should be held liable for the employee’s injury.

General Contractor Liability for Subcontractors Going Forward

Afoa provides the following takeaways for Owners and General Contractors:

  1. An Owner or General Contractor is not automatically liable for a Subcontractor’s actions that cause injury to the Subcontractor’s employee on the jobsite. 
  2. For the Owner or General Contractor to be held liable for a Subcontractor’s actions, the injured employee must show that the General Contractor was exercising control over that Subcontractor.
  3. However, an Owner or General Contractor is still liable for its own actions.

If you have any questions about jobsite or workplace liability, contact Henry Ross at hross@mpba.com, and the attorneys at MPBA at (206) 682-7090.