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Real Estate Firms Are Not Liable for Qualified Contractors' Negligence
Contractors Must Take Responsibility for Their Own Mistakes
Real estate firms are not liable for the damages caused by contractors who are qualified for their jobs but negligent on single occasions, according to a recent Pennsylvania appellate court ruling.
The ruling was based on principles of tort law used in courts nationwide.
The ruling overturned an $86,000 judgment against commercial real estate firm Robb H. Inc. and its president, William Hawthorne. They were accused in Hart Trucking Repair v. Robb H. Inc. of negligence for hiring a contractor who caused a fire at a warehouse.
The appellate court said Robb H. Inc. could be liable if its managers hired contractors who lacked skill, experience or the proper equipment for their job, which then caused damages to someone else.
However, there was no evidence the contractor who caused the fire was unqualified.
The contractor, Paul Wojdalski, was hired to work on the roof of a Philadelphia industrial park building owned by Robb H. Inc., according to Court of Common Pleas documents. Wojdalski used propane tanks and welding torches, which he left on the roof one evening. A fire started on the roof and spread to another building.
Tenants of the damaged buildings, Hart Trucking Repair and Eagle Truck Services, sued Robb H. Inc. and the contractor for property losses. The judge in the bench trial ruled in favor of the tenants.
Robb H. Inc. and its owner appealed, arguing they could not be liable when they had no way of knowing the contractor might be negligent. They hired Wojdalski based on his low bid and his rating on a contractor review website.
Wojdalski had insurance and had satisfactorily performed two previous welding jobs for Robb H. Inc.
Testimony during the trial showed the contractor knew he should stay on the roof for an hour after stopping his welding to watch for fire and that he should remove the propane tanks. However, he failed to follow the procedures.
If the harm . . . was caused by the contractor's inattention or negligence, then the employer is liable only if it knew or should have known of the contractor's inattentiveness or carelessness, the Superior Court’s appellate decision said.
There was no evidence Robb H. Inc. could reasonably know about Wojdalski’s inattentiveness or carelessness, the court said.
The case is Hart Trucking Repair v. Robb H., Pa. Sup. Ct., PICS No. 15-0773, (May 2015).