Conn. Supreme Court: General Contractor Not Liable for Inspections

April 15, 2008

A Connecticut general contractor who delegates special inspections of all steel welding work as required by the state’s building code to a subcontractor is not liable for injuries resulting from an accident that occurs due to failure of the subcontractor’s work.

The Connecticut Supreme Court has reversed a $41 million verdict originally rendered back in 2005 that held a general contractor rather than the subcontractor responsible when a loose steal beam fell and severely injured a worker.

More than 13 years ago, Bristol, Conn. construction worker Norman Pelletier was paralyzed in a worksite accident at a Pitney Bowes facility when an insufficiently-welded steel beam broke loose and struck him. On Dec. 8, 2005, a jury found the general contractor for the job, Sordoni Skanska Construction Co. of New Jersey, responsible and awarded Pelletier $5.6 million in economic damages, $22.7 million in non-economic damages and awarded his wife $3.8 million for loss of consortium, for a total damages award of $32.2 million.

Pelletier was an employee of Berlin Steel Construction Co., the structural steel fabrication and erection subcontractor for the project hired by Sordoni.

In 2006, in an appeal, a trial court also rendered judgment for the plaintiff on the jury verdict, granted his motion for post-judgment interest and attorneys’ fees and awarded him damages in the amount of $41.4 million.

Pelletier has been receiving workers’ compensation benefits from Berlin Steel since the accident.

The trial court found that the general contractor was responsible for the poorly welded steel beam. It determined that the general contractor Sordoni had a “non-delegable duty under the building code to conduct special inspections of all welds and that a violation of that duty constituted negligence per se.”

Now the Connecticut Supreme Court has overturned that verdict, ruling instead that Pelletier’s own employer, independent subcontractor Berlin Steel, was responsible for the injury, not the general contractor Sordoni.

Sordoni claimed that the trial court improperly concluded that it owed the plaintiff a non-delegable duty of care under the building code to inspect all welds at the Pitney Bowes site and that its failure to do so constituted negligence per se. Sordoni specifically argued that neither the building code itself, nor any of its provisions, created such a duty.

Pelletier’s lawyers, however, responded that the building code imposed a non-delegable duty on Sordoni, as the permit applicant, to provide special inspections of all steel welds.

The state Supreme Court agreed with Sordoni that it did not have a non-delegable duty under the building code to inspect all welds.

The court said that subcontractor Berlin Steel had the responsibility to provide all of the structural steel for the Pitney Bowes project, and to ensure its integrity. This included the duty to weld connections in the structural steel that would allow for the interconnection of steel members as a load-bearing, structural frame for the building. Furthermore, Berlin Steel had the duty to inspect those welds, ensuring their ability to bear weight.

“A fair and reasonable person could reach but one conclusion as to who exercised control over the welding and inspection process, namely, Berlin Steel,” the court’s ruling states.

The court said that the language of the building code clearly does not expect the permit applicant to conduct special inspections because as a condition for permit issuance it requires that the applicant shall submit a “statement of special inspections” that includes “a list of the individuals, agencies and/or firms intended to be retained for conducting such inspections.”

“Thus,” the state’s high court stated, “although the building code does not explicitly preclude the permit applicant from conducting special inspections, it clearly contemplates that such inspections will be conducted by a qualified expert retained by the permit applicant or by an approved independent inspection or quality control agency with which the fabricator maintains an agreement.”

The decision is Norman Pelletier et al v. Sordoni/Skanska Construction Company (SC 17775).

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