Taking advantage of recent law in favor of contractor defendants in construction negligence lawsuits, Gordon & Rees recently obtained summary judgment in favor of its demolition contractor client in a high-exposure multi-plaintiff lawsuit filed in Cook County, Illinois.

In the consolidated action, the two plaintiffs were employees of a scaffold erection company hired by Gordon & Rees’ client to erect a scaffold to facilitate the demolition of a Chicago high school gymnasium ceiling. During the erection, the scaffold collapsed, causing the plaintiffs to fall 21 feet to the ground and sustain serious injuries. Both plaintiffs alleged that Gordon & Rees’ client, as the hiring contractor, neglected its responsibility to ensure that plaintiffs worked under safe conditions and failed to properly supervise plaintiffs’ work.

Gordon & Rees sought summary judgment, contending that its client did not assert any control over plaintiffs’ work whatsoever. Relying upon both testimony as well as the contract, Gordon & Rees argued that because there was no control over plaintiffs’ work, it must follow that there was no liability.

The Cook County court agreed with Gordon & Rees, citing to favorable Illinois law regarding Sections 343 and 414 of the Restatement (Second) of Torts. Specifically, the court found that in order for a contractor to be subject to liability, the contractor or employer must have retained at least some degree of control over the manner in which the work was performed; it is not enough that the contractor merely has a general right to order the work stopped or resumed. With respect to the contract, the court agreed that Illinois law is clear that contract language alone is not sufficient to impose liability, nor is the existence of a safety program (citing Martens v. MCL Construction Corp., 347 Ill.App.3d 303 (1st Dist. 2004)).

Here, because the demolition contractor was only on site once—for a half hour—and never observed the scaffolding in the condition that led to its collapse, it could not be found that the contractor controlled the means and methods of plaintiffs’ work sufficient to rise to potential liability.

The Martens case and similar opinions that have since followed are clearly helpful for contractors who find themselves entrenched in construction injury lawsuits. To wit, courts will no longer deny summary judgment just because one party merely contracted with or supplied a safety manual to another party. Rather, there must be evidence of sufficient interaction and control in order to potentially impose liability on the part of a contractor.