By: Thomas S. Tripodianos Published: April 2010

Are Homeowners liable to a construction worker who was injured while working on their home renovation project?

Question. As spring approaches and many residential projects break ground a fairly common fact pattern emerges. Homeowners were involved in the basic planning and coordination of their home renovation project. Their participation was however, not so significant that they could be considered serving as their own general contractor. The Homeowners hired a construction company to perform the work and the worker received direction regarding the method and manner of his work from company representatives. In addition, a company representative recruited and coordinated the work of subcontractors, even though one of the homeowners was primarily responsible for making sure that the subcontractors were paid and documented their working hours. There is no evidence that Homeowners had either actual or constructive knowledge of any alleged dangerous condition regarding the property conditions.

Are Homeowners liable to a construction worker who was injured while working on their home renovation project?

Answer. NO. The analysis (and the outcome) relies heavily on the particular factual situation. This is certainly one situation where the old adage “If you want something done right, do it yourself” does not apply.

Construction Worker was employed by Contractor, which was hired by Homeowners to perform renovation work at a lake house they owned. While Construction Worker was digging holes to install concrete footers near a retaining wall, the retaining wall collapsed onto him, causing personal injuries. Seeking to recover damages for those injuries, Construction Worker sued Homeowners.

With respect to Homeowners, it is well established that “[a]n owner of a one- or two-family dwelling is exempt from liability under Labor Law §§ 240 and 241 unless he or she directed or controlled the work being performed.” As there is no dispute that Homeowners are owners of the house, the relevant inquiry is whether they directed or controlled the work that was performed there. In that regard, “[t]he phrase ‘direct or control’ ... is construed strictly and refers to the situation where the owner supervises the method and manner of the work”.

Although Homeowners were involved in the basic planning and coordination of the renovation project, their participation was not so significant as to support a finding that they essentially served as their own general contractor. Specifically, Homeowners hired Contractor to perform the work at their house and Construction Worker received direction regarding the method and manner in which he was to perform his work directly from Contractor. Although Homeowners were primarily responsible for making sure that the subcontractors were paid and they documented when each was present and how many hours they worked, it was Contractor who recruited them and coordinated their work. Despite Homeowners completing the building permit application themselves, provided sketches of the work that they wanted done and making payments for the work directly to the subcontractors rather than through Contractor the result is no different.

Homeowner’s actions however did not cross the line from being a legitimately concerned homeowner to a de facto supervisor. That being said homeowner’s should allow the construction professionals they hired to do their job and contractors should strictly enforce the channels of communication to prevent future disputes and minimize injuries, delays and cost.

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