Civil Practice

Fall Through Skylight Leads to Premises Liability Exception

, The Legal Intelligencer



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.

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