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South Dakota high court divided over suit against general contractor

Posted On: Aug. 30, 2022 9:56 AM CST


A divided Supreme Court of South Dakota ruled that a construction worker could not maintain a negligence claim against the general contractor responsible for the project on which he was injured.

JM Custom Homes served as the general contractor for a home construction project in Rapid City. It subcontracted with Pine Tree Plumbing, for which plaintiff Douglas Ries worked, to complete the plumbing work on the home, according to the ruling issued Wednesday in Ries v. JM Custom Homes LLC.

Mr. Ries was injured when he fell through an unanchored plywood stair leading from the main level to the basement.

He successfully filed a workers compensation claim and then filed a negligence suit in circuit court against JM, alleging it was negligent because it used unanchored, half-inch plywood on each step and failed to install handrails.

A circuit court granted summary judgment in favor of JM, which asserted it was immune from civil liability because it was subject to potential liability for workers compensation benefits.

Four of the five state Supreme Court justices agreed, stating that since a general contractor is subject to the same non-fault liability for workers compensation as an immediate employer under South Dakota law it has statutory immunity from negligence actions.

“Though Ries was statutorily required to file a claim against Pine Tree, JM remained potentially liable for workers compensation benefits,” the court said. Thus, he was limited to the recovery of benefits, which he received from Pine Tree.

The dissenting judge said the court should not have affirmed the summary judgment because JM failed to make the necessary showing that it is an “employer” entitled to immunity under the exclusive remedy provisions of the workers compensation statutes.

Since JM did not secure payment for Mr. Ries as required for an employer, the dissenting judge contended, it should not have been able to claim the immunity provided to employers.

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