Be Careful Contractors When Signing Contracts, Since You Can Assume Duties Relating To Work Of Subcontractors!!!!!
In 2007, a School contracted with Kloeppel to perform work and services and to supply equipment for a renovation project at a high school. As part of that project, Kloeppel purchased projection screens and subcontracted with Casework to install the projection screens. In 2009, Gwinn, teacher employed at the high school, was injured when the projection screen in her classroom fell from a ceiling mount while she was retracting the screen. One end of the screen fell and struck Gwinn, knocking her to the floor and causing her to fracture her humerus. Gwinn filed a complaint for negligence against Kloeppel alleging that Kloeppel negligently failed to exercise its duty of reasonable care in its work installing and hanging the projection screen Kloeppel answered and subsequently filed a motion for summary judgment and designation of evidence arguing that it did not personally install the screen but had hired a subcontractor to do so, that it owed no duty to Gwinn. Gwinn responded with a cross motion for summary judgment arguing that as the general contractor on the project, Kloeppel owed her a nondelegable duty of care pursuant to its contract with the school and should be held vicariously liable for the acts or omissions of its subcontractors. Following a hearing, the trial court entered its order granting summary judgment in favor of Kloeppel and this appeal ensued.
On appeal, Gwinn asserts that Kloeppel owed a duty to her as a foreseeable victim of the alleged negligent installation of the projection screen. Our Supreme Court abrogated Indiana’s “acceptance rule” according to which contractors owed no duty of care to third parties injured on a premises after the owner of the premises accepted the work by holding that the, “rule that provides that a builder or contractor is liable for injury or damage to a third person as a result of the condition of the work, even after completion of the work and acceptance by the owner, where it was reasonably foreseeable that a third party would be injured by such work due to the contractor’s negligence, is consistent with traditional principles of negligence upon which Indiana’s scheme of negligence law is based.”
It is undisputed that Kloeppel did not install the projection screen that fell and allegedly caused Gwinn’s injuries. Rather, the designated evidentiary material indicates that Kloeppel hired a subcontractor, Casework, to perform that task. Accordingly, although Indiana law currently adheres to the overriding rule that, even after acceptance, contractors owe a duty of care to reasonably foreseeable third parties as enunciated in Peters, whether Kloeppel owed a duty to Gwinn under the circumstances presented here is more specifically governed by a well-defined legal doctrine of vicarious liability: that of nondelegable duty. Gwinn argues that Kloeppel owed a duty to her with respect to Casework’s installation of the projection screen pursuant to an exception to a general contractor’s nonliability for the negligence of its subcontractors: where the principal is by law or contract charged with performing the specific duty. Specifically, Gwinn argues that Kloeppel assumed a duty of reasonable care to her through its contract. Our review of the contract indicates that Kloeppel assumed a specific duty to supervise and direct the renovation work and to assure that all construction means, methods, and procedures were executed with reasonable care. Indeed, Kloeppel did not merely have a right to supervise the work of its subcontractors; the contract instructed that Kloeppel “shall” supervise the work and that Kloeppel was “solely responsible” for the construction methods used. As stated earlier, the rationale behind the general rule of nonliability is that a general contractor typically exercises little, if any, control over the means or manner of the work of its subcontractors. Here, Kloeppel contractually assumed the duty to be “solely responsible for and have control over construction means, methods, techniques, sequences and procedures” of the work. We further conclude that Kloeppel assumed specific responsibility for the acts and omissions, negligent or otherwise, of its subcontractors. We agree with Gwinn’s contention that the contract language affirmatively evinces an intent to charge Kloeppel with a specific duty of care. Accordingly, the trial court erred when it granted summary judgment in favor of Kloeppel. 9 N.E.3d 687