Are Homeowners Liable for Injuries to their Contractors?

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Situation

A homeowner hires a professional roofer to replace his roof. After a snow storm, he clears and salts some but not all of the roof. He then asks the roofer to go onto the roof. While laying a piece of roof membrane, the roofer slides down the uncleared part of the roof and falls to the ground, suffering serious injuries. The homeowner hadn’t installed guardrails on the roof or supplied the roofer with fall protection equipment. The roofer sues the homeowner for negligence.

Question

Is the homeowner liable for the roofer’s injuries?

A. Yes, because the homeowner was negligent.
B. Yes, because the homeowner violated the province’s OHS Act.
C. No, because even if the homeowner was negligent, the roofer was negligent, too.
D. No, because the roofer is an independent contractor and not the homeowner’s employee.

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Answer

A. The homeowner is liable for negligence because he knew that the snowy, icy roof posed a hazard and so should have taken reasonable care to protect the roofer.

Explanation

OHS laws aren’t the only source of liability for failing to protect a worker from an occupational hazard in connection with jobs performed on your property. This situation, which is loosely based on a New Brunswick case, illustrates the potential liability of homeowners and landowners for injuries to workers on their property.

One principle source of liability outside the OHS laws is negligence, which requires a homeowner to take reasonable care, under the circumstances, to ensure the  health and safety of the people on their property, such as those they hire to perform work. The homeowner in this case didn’t meet that duty. He recognized that snow and ice on the roof posed a hazard to the roofer but cleared and salted only part of it. He also failed to install guardrails on the roof or ensure the roofer used fall protection equipment. Thus, the court concluded that the homeowner was negligent and ordered him to pay the roofer $342,272 in damages.

Why Wrong Answers Are Wrong

B is wrong because even if the homeowner’s failure to install guardrails on the roof or provide fall protection equipment were OHS violations, the roofer can’t sue the homeowner under the OHS Act for his injuries. That’s because the OHS laws don’t allow injured workers to sue their employers for workplace injuries. Thus, the homeowner can’t be liable in a civil lawsuit under the OHS Act for the roofer’s injuries.

C is wrong because negligence by the roofer might reduce his damages but it doesn’t necessarily get the homeowner off the hook. In Canada, courts apportion the negligence between the parties and reduce the damages accordingly. For example, if a victim is 50% at fault for his injuries, the court will cut the damages in half.

D is wrong because although status as employee or independent contractor is relevant in determining liability under OHS law, under negligence law, a homeowner has a duty to ensure that all visitors to his property are reasonably safe. Thus, even if the roofer is an independent contractor and not the homeowner’s employee, the homeowner still had a duty to protect him from hazards posed by the roofing work.

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Beaupré v. Rowan, [2010] N.B.J. No. 101, March 31, 2010