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A general contractor could be liable for the severe traumatic brain injury sustained by a subcontractor on its job site, the Washington Supreme Court in Olympia held Friday.
In Vargas v. Inland Washington LLC, Washington state’s high court reversed a lower court’s decision in an en banc hearing, unanimously finding that questions remain as to whether the general contractor was liable or vicariously liable for the actions of its subcontractors.
Gildardo Crisostomo Vargas worked for Hilltop Concrete Construction LLC, based in Arlington, Washington, which was hired by Spokane, Washington-based general contractor Inland Washington LLC to pour concrete for an apartment building under construction. In May 2013 while on the job site, a concrete-carrying hose whipped around, hit Mr. Vargas in the head, and caused a severe traumatic brain injury.
Mr. Vargas and his family sued the general contractor, the concrete supplier and the concrete pumper for negligence.
On the day of the incident, the pump truck operator arrived at the work site, Hilltop’s foreman directed him where to park and set up, and the concrete company arrived to load concrete into the pump truck. However, the pour did not go as planned, and after the pump truck operator attempted to rectify the situation, the hose began to whip around and struck Mr. Vargas in the head, knocking off his hard hat and leaving him unconscious. It is thought that concrete either clogged the system or air somehow entered the system, according to court documents.
A trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the general contractor, and Mr. Vargas and his family appealed. The Washington Supreme Court reversed the decision, holding that general contractors “have expansive statutory and common law duties to provide a safe workplace” and that genuine issues of material fact remain as to whether the general contractor breached its duty to Mr. Vargas and was directly liable for his injury.
Although Inland argued that its duty did not extend to “non-common work areas” that require an “expert” like the filling of the pump truck with concrete, the court disagreed, finding that the general contractor’s general supervisory functions could be found to be sufficient to establish control over Mr. Vargas’ work conditions and that Inland failed to prove as a matter of law that it had no common law duty to provide a safe workplace for Mr. Vargas.
The court also found genuine issue of material fact regarding Mr. Vargas and his family’s claim for breach and causation, noting the testimony of Mr. Vargas’ expert, who argued that Inland “should have identified in their site safety plan the hazards of concrete pumping” and made “sure there was an overall culture of safety that was developed for the entire site.”
The court also found that the general contractor could be potentially vicariously liable for the negligence, if any, of the other entities on the job site.
The Washington Department of Labor and Industries on Wednesday proposed a 0.8% decrease in the average premium employers would pay for the coverage in 2020.