Federal and state laws require that the general contractor on a construction site keep it reasonably safe. Nevertheless, most construction work is inherently dangerous, and construction accidents are among the most expensive of personal injury cases. Nearly 200,000 construction workers are injured on the job ever year in the U.S.
Even if a subcontractor is found to be at fault for an accident, the general contractor is also usually held partially responsible. This is because it is the controlling contractor’s job to oversee all activities of subcontractors on the site. The general contractor is also responsible for hiring workers who are properly trained (or training them), maintaining equipment in good working order, warning workers and anyone near the construction site of potential hazards, and regularly checking to make sure that safety and OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) regulations are being followed. In the case of a mechanical failure due to poor design or faulty manufacturing, however, the company that built the machine might be found to be primarily at fault.
If the injured party is a union or non-union employee on the construction site, workers’ (sometimes called workman’s) compensation insurance will pay for the damages-even if worker error is found to be the cause of the accident. All 50 states have some form of “work comp” available, although the specifics vary. Work comp rules apply between an employee and employer, but if a product manufacturer, for example, is found to be partially at fault for the accident, those rules do not apply in a claim against that manufacturer.
In most states, the worker can file a separate personal injury lawsuit against a third party like the aforementioned product manufacturer. Others who might be held responsible for a construction accident include architects, subcontractors, riggers, engineers, and suppliers of equipment or services such as electricity.
In New York, for example, a special Scaffolding Law was passed to ensure that workers can bring personal injury lawsuits against property owners and contractors when an accident occurs on scaffolding and related equipment. If OSHA, which is a division of the Department of Labor, determines that a contractor has violated safety regulations, it may also fine the company a certain amount of money per injury.
If a worker receives a settlement from workers’ compensation insurance and then an additional settlement from a separate personal injury lawsuit related to the same injury, the workers’ compensation insurance company may require that some of its settlement funds be paid back. This is called a “lien” on the settlement amount. In other words, workers are not allowed to sue several parties and receive unlimited funds for injuries in excess of their injury expenses. However, when the injuries are severe enough and perhaps cause permanent disability, substantial settlements are often awarded. This is justified, of course, if the injury could have been prevented and the employee can never work again.
Some common types of construction accidents include:
Crane or forklift accidents
Nail gun accidents
Explosions or fires
Exposed or faulty electrical wiring
Injuries caused by safety code or OSHA violations
Highway construction accidents
Nail gun and other power tool malfunctions or misuse
Tile accidents (ceiling or wall)
Elevator or escalator accidents
Building collapses/structure failure
Slips/trips and falls
Missing safety equipment
Even though the types of accidents that can happen on a construction site appear to be endless, OSHA has named its “fatal four” types of injuries that are responsible for 60% of construction worker deaths. They are: falls, electrocutions, injuries from being struck by an object, and injuries from being caught in-between objects.
How Do Construction Accident Cases Work?
When an accident occurs, it is imperative that the scene is preserved so that the cause can be investigated. If items are moved or machinery is repaired, the integrity of the investigation is compromised. If the accident is serious enough, OSHA is called and dispatches its own investigators. Any witnesses to the accident must be questioned as soon as possible while the facts are fresh in their minds. The investigators will also take photographs, examine construction site records, check machinery, collect air samples if toxic fumes are believed to be involved in the accident, and use instruments to take readings, when necessary.
Of course, workers are not always the people injured by construction sites. Pedestrians walking by a site are also sometimes injured by falling debris and other hazards. If road work is involved, improperly marked construction can cause auto accidents. If there are people living within a building where construction is taking place, they might be injured by an accident on site, such as an explosion or a fallen ceiling. Children have also been known to wander onto construction sites, becoming injured in the process.
If a non-worker is injured, these cases do not fall under the rules of workers’ compensation and must be brought as regular personal injury lawsuits. Workers’ compensation and personal injury cases for construction accidents often pay for damages such as:
• Medical bills
• Lost wages from missed work
• Loss of the ability to perform normal daily activities
• Pain and suffering (this is not allowed in all states)
• Wrongful death-financial compensation to the family of someone who was killed in a construction accident
On the employee’s behalf, lawyers sometimes negotiate workers’ compensation settlements with the employer’s insurance company. If a third-party-meaning someone other than the employee and employer-is deemed responsible in full or in part for the accident, a worker would then become the plaintiff in the third-party lawsuit.
The plaintiff/injured party-whether a worker for the general contractor or a non-worker-should hire an attorney to assist with the case, as these accidents can involve a number of complicated elements. Lawyers who are accustomed to handling construction site accidents have a rolodex of experts to call upon who can evaluate the situation and provide reports to support the employee’s account of the incident. These reports would then hopefully help the lawyer negotiate a larger settlement amount for the plaintiff-the person who suffered injuries.