A Gwinnett County, Georgia jury recently decided that an improperly installed window was responsible for the death of independent contractor, Wade Blackwell. Blackwell was asked to give the building owner a quote for the cost of replacing trim around an attic window. Blackwell was inspecting the trim when he tried to close a window sash. The sash fell out of its frame, causing Blackwell to fall to his death.
The jury determined that the window installer had failed to follow basic safety procedures to secure the window sash in place. While it was unclear whether Blackwell was pushing on the sash or fell into it, the judge rejected the installer’s suggestion that it was essential to know what Blackwell was doing when he fell. Under either scenario, the fact that the sash came loose from its frame was due to faulty installation, making the installer’s negligence a contributing cause of Blackwell’s death.
Fires Caused by Contractor Negligence
The Gwinnett County case is unusual in that one contractor was injured by a different contractor’s negligence. In most cases, it is the property owner and family members who are injured when contractors are careless.
For example, suppose an electrician mistakenly connects a 120-volt baseboard heater to a 240-volt circuit box, causing the heater to overheat. Suppose the electrician also fails to install the circuit breakers correctly, allowing the overheating to continue and start a fire. While that example might sound farfetched, it is drawn from facts that were established in a trial. In that case, a 12-year-old boy died due to the electrician’s negligence.
Tens of thousands of fires each year are started by faulty electrical wiring. Electricians are not responsible for all of those fires — sometimes a homeowner doesn’t bring older wiring up to code while other homeowners do work that should be performed by a licensed electrician — but electricians are responsible for a significant percentage of fires that are caused by faulty wiring.
In addition, contractors or handymen may try to cut corners and increase profits by doing their own electrical work instead of subcontracting to a licensed electrician. Handymen may be held accountable for their negligence when they do not hire professionals to do skilled work.
Creating Unsafe Conditions
Contractors should not only make a home attractive and functional, they should make a home safe. They fail in that duty when they:
- Allow newly installed carpeting to lay loose on the floor, creating a tripping hazard
- Fail to anchor handrails securely to a stairway wall
- Install smoke detectors that do not operate
- Drop tools or equipment from a ladder or roof onto a homeowner
- Leave equipment or debris in places that cause homeowners to trip and fall
- Install suction drains in swimming pools that trap children underwater
- Use nail guns and other dangerous tools carelessly
- Fail to warn homeowners of hidden hazards (such as a thin sheet of plywood covering a hole in the floor)
- Neglect to tighten gas lines in stoves and dryers
Any of those failures that result from carelessness to follow ordinary standards will make a contractor responsible for resulting injuries.
Failure to Supervise Employees
In some cases, a contractor’s employee may cause a deliberate injury. An employee who sexually assaults a homeowner or who punches a homeowner in response to criticism about work performance may create liability for the contractor who hired the employee.
Contractors have a duty to use reasonable care before hiring an employee. Reasonable care may include, for example, checking an employee’s criminal record or making sure that the employee is not listed on a sex offender registry. When a background check could have identified an employee who places homeowners at risk, the failure to conduct that check might be negligent.
Contractors have a similar duty to exercise care when they decide whether to retain employees. If an employee has demonstrated a hot temper in the past, continuing to assign that employee to jobs may be an act of negligence.
Finally, contractors have a duty to supervise their employees. If a contractor sees dangerous behavior and fails to correct it, or has reason to suspect that an employee might harm a customer and does nothing to prevent the harm, the contactor can be held liable for any ensuing injury that the employee causes.
Compensation for Injuries
The jury in the Gwinnett County case awarded a verdict to Blackwell’s estate of $17.9 million in wrongful death damages. The amount of compensation that an injury victim will receive depends on multiple factors, including the nature of the harm and the circumstances under which it occurs. An experienced personal injury lawyer can evaluate your case and, after learning the relevant facts, can give you a ballpark estimate of the compensation you might receive for injuries caused by contractors.