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Vargas Vicarious Liability

A General Contractor’s Duty to Enforce Safety on a Construction Job Site in Washington.

For years, Washington State has been a leader in holding general contractors accountable for enforcing job safety regulations for the protection of construction workers and to prevent needless injuries to employees and subcontractors working on the jobsite. General contractors have expansive statutory and common law duties to provide a safe workplace. See, e.g., Stute v. PBMC, Inc., 114 Wn.2d 454 (1990); Kelley v. Howard S. Wright Construction Co., 90 Wn.2d 323 (1978).

In 2019, the Washington Supreme Court further expanded the general contractor’s liability to include vicarious liability for the failure of subcontractors to follow established safety standards. In Vargas v. Inland Washington, L.L.C., 194 Wn.2d 720 (2019), the court held that the general contractor could be held directly liable under two theories: (1) the general contractor had a common law duty to maintain a safe workplace; and (2) the general contractor had a statutory duty to comply with WISHA safety regulations issued by the Department of Labor and Industries.

In addition to direct liability, the court held that a general contractor could be vicariously liable for the actions of its subcontractors under two theories: (1) a general contractor may not delegate its statutory duty to comply with WISHA and, if it does, it will be vicariously liable for the negligence of the entity subject to its delegation; and (2) a general contractor will be vicariously liable for the negligence of any entity over which it exercises control. Thus, under Vargas, a general contractor can be held liable for the negligence of its subcontractors in failure to follow WISHA safety regulations or for other negligent acts that cause injuries to workers on the jobsite.

In Vargas, the injured employee worked for a subcontractor that was using a hose to distribute concrete from a concrete truck on the jobsite. During the procedure, a mechanical failure occurred and the hose being used to pump the concrete whipped around the jobsite and struck Vargas in the head, causing severe injuries. The court held that the general contractor on the jobsite, Inland Washington, could be held vicariously liable for the negligence of subcontractors working under it on its jobsite. The court explained: “Our precedent therefore places ‘prime responsibility for safety of all works . . . on the general contractor’ . . . because ‘the general contractor is in the best position to coordinate work or provide expensive safety features to protect employees of subcontractors.’” Id. at 736.

Providing a new tool to injured workers, the Court expanded protection of workers to include vicarious liability of the general contractor for the actions of negligent subcontractors: “Inland Washington is thus potentially vicariously liable for the negligence, if any of those other entities. Of course, a general contractor who retains a right to exercise control will not be vicariously liable unless the plaintiff proves that some entity on the job site was negligent. But if the plaintiff can do that, then the general contractor will be vicariously liable for that negligence.” Id. at 741.

Following Vargas, it is clear that construction workers injured on a jobsite should have the facts of their injury reviewed by an experienced construction injury lawyer to determine if claims may be brought against the general contractor for the direct negligence of the general contractor or for vicarious liability for the negligence of subcontractors. Rather than being limited by workers compensation benefits, this would allow injured workers to pursue the full measure of damages to collect fair compensation for serious life-changing injuries.