Are Landowners Liable When Contractors Are Injured on Their Property?

Case Study

Case Study: Strayer v. Cox, 2d Dist. No. 2015-CA-6, 2015-Ohio-2781.

Jonathan F. Hung, Esquire, Associate Attorney, Green & Green, Lawyers

Richard Strayer, was no stranger to dangerous situations.  He had worked in residential and commercial construction, which included climbing cell phone towers between 180 and 1,600 feet tall.  He had worn safety and body harnesses during his employment.  He regularly cut trees for firewood to heat his home.  So, when his neighbor, Anthony Cox, asked him to remove a tree from Cox’s front yard, Strayer agreed.

With a small team of assistants, Strayer began working to take Cox’s tree down.  He inspected the tree, and started cutting the lower and dead branches out of the way.  He ascended the tree along its base until he reached a branch that went over the top of Cox’s house, which he was to tie a rope around.  That rope would remain taut in hands of Cox, who was standing on the ground and would pull the branch away from the house as it fell.

Strayer began cutting at limb when it broke suddenly and unexpectedly.  It came off because it was rotted; however, it appeared to Strayer at the time to be only “a little dead.”  But the sudden break caused him to fall from the tree, injuring his left ankle.  And to recover from his injuries, he eventually had to file a complaint against Cox and his insurance company.

Unfortunately, the law was not on his side.  An owner’s liability for the conditions on his property rises and falls on whether the owner has superior knowledge of the particular danger that purportedly caused injury; here, Cox had no idea that the limb that broke was rotted or dead.  Also, an owner has no duty to protect anyone working on his property from readily-discoverable hazards on his property; here, the deteriorating tree was an open, obvious hazard that Strayer was aware of and had superior experience in assessing the danger of.

But could Cox be liable because he hired Strayer?  That was the question.

Generally, a general contractor is not liable for injuries to its subcontractors or one of its employees unless it actually participates in the job, and fails to eliminate a hazard which it could have eliminated.  A subcontractor or employee must show that the general contractor actively participated by directing the activity or critical acts that resulted in the injury or retaining exclusive control over a critical variable in the workplace that resulted in the injury.  Although Strayer claimed that Cox controlled where they worked, the courts found that the opposite was true because Strayer had superior experience in tree removal.

Have you been injured while working on someone’s property?  Perhaps you own property on which someone was injured?  Green & Green, Lawyers has the experience to assist you in determining your rights.