Civil Practice

Fall Through Skylight Leads to Premises Liability Exception

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skylight

A roofer's suit against a building owner, which stems from a fall through a rare skylight thought to be more than 100 years old, will be allowed to proceed after the state Superior Court determined the action fit the exceptions to the premises liability law.

On Feb. 7, a split three-judge panel of the Superior Court ruled in Beam v. Thiele Manufacturing that the circumstances that caused plaintiff Jason Beam to fall through a sawtooth fiberglass skylight on the roof of factory housing defendant Thiele Manufacturing met both the unique and foreseeable risk exceptions to the law.

The Somerset County Court of Common Pleas had initially dismissed the action, holding that the building owner, who hired the independent contractor that employed the injured roofer, was insulated from the suit pursuant to the premises liability law. The Superior Court's ruling reversed the earlier decision.

Judge Sallie Updyke Mundy, who wrote the memorandum opinion, found that Beam's case met both prongs for the exception that were outlined in the Superior Court's 2002 decision in Gutteridge v. A.P. Green Services.

"The trial court found that a peculiar risk did not exist because the risk was foreseeable," Mundy said. "This conclusion explicitly contravenes the test set forth in Gutteridge. Therefore, we conclude the trial court erred as a matter of law when it granted summary judgment on this ground."

Judge Anne E. Lazarus joined the decision. President Judge John T. Bender dissented.

According to Mundy, as Beam was working on a roofing project in the scope of his employment, he fell through a fiberglass skylight on the roof of a building owned by Thiele Manufacturing. During depositions after Beam filed suit, Beam testified that he was an experienced roofer and that he did not consider the roof to be especially dangerous because he viewed his work as inherently dangerous and always took precautions when working. Beam further testified that Thiele Manufacturing did not supervise or control his work, and that nobody from Thiele Manufacturing was present on the roof when the incident occurred.

The defendant subsequently made a motion for summary judgment, which was granted. The trial court held that the risks were abundantly clear to even untrained workers, and therefore no exceptions to the premises liability law applied.

Beam appealed the decision, and argued before the Superior Court that the work involved a peculiar risk of harm under the Restatement (Second) of Torts Section 416, as the sawtooth fiberglass skylight was especially dangerous and peculiarly risky due to its unique design. He further contended that Thiele Manufacturing foresaw the risk but failed to ensure that Beam took special safety precautions.

Beam noted that the skylight was brittle, dingy and located on a slanted pitch where he could walk, instead of the more common 90-degree angle.

The work, Beam argued, did not involve a deteriorating flat roof, but rather a rare roof that was governed by specific provisions in the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Beam further argued that Thiele knew the independent contractor had not complied with OSHA's fall protection requirements.

The Superior Court noted that, as an employee of Thiele's independent contractor, Beam was an "invitee" under the law. As such, Thiele should be insulated from liability for injuries Beam sustained through negligence of the independent contractor. However, Mundy said Beam's arguments regarding the Restatement (Second) of Torts were persuasive.

Mundy noted that the state Supreme Court adopted the exceptions in the 1967 case Philadelphia Electric v. Julian, and that Gutteridge specified the two-pronged approach for evaluating whether circumstances fit the exception. The courts, under Gutteridge, must evaluate a peculiar risk based on whether it was foreseeable to the employer of the independent contractor, and if it was different from the usual and ordinary risk associated with the work.

The Superior Court noted Beam's professional engineer, Michael C. Wright, indicated in his report that the skylight was unique, as it was not as vertical or low to the roof as other skylights, and that the roof was built as early as the 1890s. Wright also said that Thiele should have known that maintenance personnel were required to wear fall protection equipment and to install anchorage locations when working on the roof.

"Upon our review of appellant's expert report and the deposition testimony presented to us, we believe evidence exists that could allow a fact-finder to render a verdict in favor of appellant," Mundy said.

Mundy added that because the trial court decided that a peculiar risk did not exist because the risk was foreseeable, the court erred as a matter of law when it granted summary judgment.

Beam's attorney, Michael Koehler of Nicholas, Perot, Smith, Koehler & Wall in Erie, Pa., and Thiele's counsel, Ronald M. Puntil of Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin, each did not return a call for comment.

Max Mitchell can be contacted at 215-557-2354 or mmitchell@alm.com. Follow him on Twitter @MMitchellTLI.

(Copies of the 22-page opinion in Beam v. Thiele Manufacturing, PICS No. 14-0223, are available from Pennsylvania Law Weekly. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.) •

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