An Illinois appellate court recently addressed the scope of negligence liability for a slip and fall injury on a newly installed roof at the Chicago White Sox Stadium. In 2013, a maintenance employee slipped on the roof at the stadium and suffered severe muscle tears. The employee filed suit alleging negligence and strict liability against the White Sox, the roofing contractor, and the manufacturer of the roofing product. All three defendants moved for and were granted summary judgment by the trial court, and the employee appealed.
On appeal, the manufacturer argued that it owed no duty of care to the employee and, regardless, had provided sufficient warning to its immediate vendee, the contractor, so as to relieve the manufacturer of any liability. The contractor argued that it owed no duty of care to the plaintiff because it relied on the customer’s specifications and performed the work in accordance with the specifications.
After reviewing the manufacturer warnings, the appellate court agreed that the manufacturer had provided adequate warnings to the contractor regarding use of its roofing product and affirmed summary judgment in favor of the manufacturer. However, the appellate court reversed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment with respect to the White Sox and the contractor. Although the contractor cited past Illinois rulings that relieved contractors from liability to third parties when contractors followed the plans, specifications and instructions provided by an owner, the appellate court here found that the contractor still owed a duty of care to third parties. The court reasoned that, because the White Sox sought the contractor’s “expertise, advice, and direction” to make recommendations regarding roofing materials and necessary safety equipment, the contractor was not just “blindly replicat[ing]” specifications and plans.
The court was particularly persuaded by evidence that the White Sox and contractor negotiated the contract over several iterations and meetings. Unlike a traditional design-bid-build work scenario, the contractor had input on the specifications, plans and materials to be used in the construction of the roof, not unlike a design-build project.
The court’s decision places the contractor in a precarious position, where it may be held accountable for an injury to a third party, despite following its customer’s plans and specifications. Contractors, especially those involved in negotiated private work and, in particular, those performing construction manager roles with input into design and constructability decisions, should be mindful of the Illinois court’s decision and the implications the decision may have on future claims. A careful contractor can do several things to mitigate the risk of liability to third-party plaintiffs such as the White Sox employee in this case:
- pass on any manufacturer warnings explicitly to the owner;
- expressly disclaim liability for defective specifications or plans and seek indemnity from the owner for the same; and
- evaluate, during negotiations, the potential unintended consequences of recommending different materials, equipment or systems, especially if the recommended alternatives are to satisfy a demanding customer’s price concerns.