Acceptance of Subcontractor’s Work by General Contractor Relieves the Subcontractor of Liability to Employee of Following Subcontractor

Webber v. McBride & Sons Contracting Co.
No. ED86076, 2005 Mo. App. LEXIS 1846 (Mo. Ct. App. Dec. 13, 2005)

A painter suffered personal injuries after falling through a stairwell hole in the floor of an unfinished single-family residence. The stairwell hole had been cut by predecessor subcontractors no longer on the site. At the time of the fall, the general contractor, which also owned the residence, had already accepted the work of the subcontractors as completed.

The painter brought a negligence action against the subcontractors. As part of his burden of proof, the painter relied upon the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, a rule of evidence which permits a jury to infer from circumstantial (as opposed to direct) evidence of a defendant’s purported negligence. Among other things, the doctrine requires a showing that the defendant had control over the instrumentality causing the injury.

The subcontractors moved for dismissal, claiming that, as a matter of law, under the acceptance doctrine they could not be held liable. Under Missouri law, “acceptance by the general contractor of a sub-contractor’s work relieves the sub-contractor of liability as to a third person.” The rationale of the acceptance doctrine is that “by occupying and resuming possession of the work, the owner deprives the [sub] contractor of all opportunity to rectify the wrong.” The trial court granted the subcontractors’ motion and dismissed them from the action.

The Missouri Court of Appeals affirmed. It concluded that since control is at the “core” of both the res ipsa loquitur and acceptance doctrines, a finding that a defendant did not exercise control over the location where a negligent act occurred relieves the defendant from liability as a matter of law. Reaffirming the continuing validity of the acceptance doctrine in Missouri law, the court held that “once control is no longer in the defendants’ hands the defendants owes no duty as to negligence.”

 

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