The New Jersey Appellate Division, in an unpublished opinion, re-affirmed established New Jersey law that a landowner is under no duty to protect an employee of an independent contractor from the very hazard created by the contract absent the landowner’s retention of control over the manner and means by which the work is to be performed or where the work constitutes a nuisance per se or where one knowingly engages an incompetent contractor. See, Joseph Gage v. The College of New Jersey, Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, Docket No. A-3787-17T1, (Decided March 22, 2019).
Plaintiff Joseph Gage worked for a contractor that had been retained by The College of New Jersey to replace steam pipes on its campus. He had extensive experience in digging and laying pipes. Mr. Gage was injured when a trench in which he was standing collapsed.The trial court granted summary judgment to the defendants and found that the defendants owed no duty of care to Plaintiff. On appeal, the Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment.
In doing so, the Court noted that Plaintiff’s employer had sole contractual responsibility for the work being performed at the college. The employer testified that it had contractual responsibility for the “means and methods” of the work and for safety on the job site.The Appellate Division found that there was no “credible evidence” that the defendants directed, supervised or managed the work.It also found that the defendants left the ways, means and methods of the work to Plaintiff’s employer, an experienced, qualified and capable contractor.
The Appellate Division further relied on existing New Jersey law that landowners have no duty to eliminate operational hazards that are obvious and visible to an employee and that are incidental to the very work the contractor was hired to perform. Op at p. 8. (cite omitted). Landowners could “reasonably assume” that the contractor”would be aware of the dangers inherent in the work and, applying their own expertise . . . , take necessary steps to prevent harm to the workers.” Id.
It rejected Plaintiff’s argument to impose a duty of care on the college where that claimed duty was to protect Mr. Gage from the very work that the college hired his employer (and him) to do.
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