From the Desk of Brian Schiewe:
In a recent Washington State Supreme Court decision, the Court affirmed that a landowner may delegate to a qualified independent contractor its duty to invitees to remediate known or obvious dangers. In premises liability claims, a landowner has a duty to exercise reasonable care in making their premises safe for invitees. However, in this decision, the Court held that a landowner can delegate its duty to an independent contractor who holds itself out to have the experience to assume the delegation. Under these circumstances, a landowner is not responsible for injuries sustained by an employee of the contractor.
The Washington Supreme Court had to decide whether a landowner can pass on their responsibility to invitees on their property to an independent contractor. This issue is crucial in all industries that use independent contractors. The question of whether a landowner is obligated to address known or obvious hazards arises when this responsibility is delegated.
Eylander v. Prologis Targeted U.S. Logistics Fund., No. 101176-8 Washington Supreme Court December 6, 2023
In May of 2017, Prologis Management LLC needed roofing maintenance and repair work on a commercial warehouse it owned. Prologis then selected Commercial Industrial Roofing Inc. (CIR) as an independent contractor at the recommendation of another property manager who was pleased with their work.
CIR entered a contract with Prologis, who delegated all its duties to CIR. CIR was hired by Prologis to handle work on the roof, including the cleaning project. The contract stipulated that CIR would abide by all applicable laws, take sole responsibility for the health and safety of anyone providing the service, and immediately notify the defendant upon violating any such law. The contract also required CIR to create a site-specific roofer safety plan and post it on-site before gaining roof access.
CIR developed a fall avoidance work plan involving a safety monitor system for this cleaning project where a worker warned other workers to be careful and watch for hazards. The plan listed the skylights on the roof as hazards. CIR shared the fall avoidance work plan with its employees but did not share its plans with Prologis because CIR had full discretion to select whatever safety measure it desired, given its expertise in roofing.
Jeffry Eylander was an employee of CIR, working on the cleaning project in June 2017. Eylander and other employees signed off on the safety plan and reminded each other to exercise caution with the unguarded skylights before they began their work. Eylander was climbing the roof’s edge when he was distracted by loud exhaust from an old car in the parking lot. CIR foreman warned Eylander that he was getting too close to the skylight, then Eylander tripped and fell while walking backward. Eylander fell 30 feet to the concrete floor and died as a result of the impact.
Following the accident, Eylander’s daughter filed a premises liability action for wrongful death against Prologis but lost and then appealed the case. The Court of Appeals held that Defendant did not breach its duty to guard Eylander against known or obvious dangers on the premises by reasonably delegating the duty to CIR who was an independent contractor, and who held itself out as a professional roofing contractor with the requisite experience to assume delegation. It held that Prologis acted reasonably because CIR held itself out as a professional roofing contractor with the experience and capacity to assume the delegation of the duty.
Regardless, Eylander’s daughter, as personal representative of his estate, Petitioner, filed the case with the Supreme Court alleging that Prologis knew or should have known that the dangerous condition of the roof involved an unreasonable risk of harm to invitees such as Eylander and that it breached its duty to exercise reasonable care to protect him from the harm.
Generally, a Landowner is only liable for physical harm to the invitee caused by a condition on the land under Sections 343 of the Restatement (Second) of Torts to guide if:
i. Knows or, by the exercise of reasonable care, would discover the condition and should realize that it involves an unreasonable risk of harm to such invitees and
ii. Should expect that they will not discover or realize the danger or will fail to protect themselves against it and
iii. Fails to exercise reasonable care to protect them against danger.
In this case, the Washington Supreme Court reviewed the grant of a motion for summary judgment. The key legal principle in question is a landowner’s duty to make their premises safe for invitees. In wrongful death actions based on negligence, the plaintiff must establish four elements: duty owed, breach of that duty, resulting injury, and proximate cause Here, the duty owed by Prologis, the landowner, to Eylander, an invitee, was the focus.
The Court held that a landowner’s responsibility to ensure safety on their property varies based on the status of the person present – whether they are an invitee, licensee, or trespasser. Eylander was considered an invitee because Prologis hired a contractor to maintain their warehouse.
Accordingly, the Court referred to Restatement (Second) of Torts § 343 and § 343A to define a landowner’s duty towards an invitee. Under these sections, a landowner is responsible for physical harm caused to invitees by a hazardous condition on the property if they were aware or should have been aware of it and yet failed to take necessary steps to prevent it. In its ruling, it stated that a landowner cannot be held responsible for ensuring the safety of invitees as they are not a guarantor of safety. This is especially true if the danger is known or obvious to the invitee. In general, the landowner is not liable for any harm caused by a condition on the land that is known or obvious unless it can be reasonably anticipated that the harm may occur despite its obviousness.
The central issue in the case was whether Prologis could delegate its duty to protect invitees from known or obvious dangers to an independent contractor, CIR.
The Court concluded that Prologis could reasonably delegate this duty to CIR under certain conditions. The delegation had to be explicit, with the contractor assuming the responsibility to exercise reasonable care to make the land safe. Additionally, Prologis had to exercise reasonable care in selecting a competent contractor with proper experience.
Prologis had officially assigned its responsibility to a third party through a written agreement, and CIR had agreed to take on the responsibility for the safety of its employees. The court concluded that Prologis had met the conditions for a reasonable delegation of its duty and, therefore, was not liable for Eylander’s injuries.
Finally, the Court held that a landowner can delegate its duty to protect invitees from known or obvious dangers to an independent contractor if certain conditions are met. In this case, Prologis had reasonably delegated its duty to CIR, resulting in their non-liability for Eylander’s injuries.
If a landowner wants to delegate their responsibility to an independent contractor, it must emphasize the need for clear contracts with regard to responsibility for worksite and worker safety between a landowner and its independent contractors.