Court of Appeals: Contractor Not Liable for Subcontractor’s Employee’s Fall From Ladder

When it comes to personal injury claims, you should never make assumptions. For instance, even if you believe an accident was the result of a faulty piece of equipment, you still need to prove it in court. Do not assume the judge (or jury) will just take your word for it that “it must have been broken.”

Lakeshore Contracting, LLC v. Lopez-Hernandez

A recent decision from the Georgia Court of Appeals, Lakeshore Contracting, LLC v. Lopez-Hernandez, offers a useful illustration. This case involves an accident that occurred at a construction site. The defendant is a general contractor. In 2016, a customer hired the defendant to remodel a retail store. The defendant hired two subcontractors to perform the actual remodeling work. One of the subcontractors then hired the plaintiff to assist him.

One day, the plaintiff and the subcontractor picked up some materials from the defendant’s workshop to help them complete the remodeling job. These materials included a ladder owned by the defendant. Early the next morning, the plaintiff was climbing the ladder when “one of the rungs apparently broke or gave way,” according to court records, causing the plaintiff to fall from the ladder. The plaintiff sustained a serious neck injury in the fall that required surgery.

The plaintiff subsequently filed his personal injury lawsuit, alleging his fall was caused by the defective ladder and that the defendant “had actual or constructive knowledge of the ladder’s defective condition” and was negligent in failing to either inspect or maintain the ladder.

The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that there was no evidence the ladder itself was actually defective, and therefore it could not have known such a defect existed. The trial judge denied the motion, deciding a jury could find the defendant had at least “constructive” knowledge of the defective ladder. That is to say, there was disputed evidence that could show the defendant “should have inspected the ladder or cautioned [the plaintiff] to inspect the ladder before using it.”

But the Court of Appeals disagreed and held the defendant was entitled to summary judgment. The appeals court said the plaintiff “provided no evidence that the ladder was defective” in the first place. He merely assumed the ladder was defective because of his fall. And a plaintiff’s “feelings and viewpoint about how a ladder collapsed” was not evidence. Additionally, even if the ladder was defective, the plaintiff failed to present any evidence “that the defect was obvious from a visual inspection of the ladder,” and therefore should have been discovered by the defendant. To the contrary, the subcontractor’s “undisputed testimony” was that he “used the ladder without incident” prior to the plaintiff’s accident. And while the ladder appeared somewhat old and worn, the subcontractor “did not see that it was broken or otherwise looked unsafe.”