Below is a question we received from a repairman inquiring about his legal rights after he fell through a floor opening at a work location in PA.
Question: I repair equipment at dry cleaning businesses. I was working at one location on the second floor where the clothes conveyor system goes. There are openings in the second story floor where the conveyer runs. A contractor doing work at the location a week or two earlier had removed the guardrails protecting the floor openings to do work in that location. I fell through the floor opening and fractured my back. The earlier contractor did not reinstall the guardrails before he left. I have been told that the other contractor has no insurance and assets -- it was a fly by night operation. The owner of the dry cleaner is telling my boss that he did not know that the rails had been removed and not replaced. Do I have a case here?
Answer: Yes, you have a case even though the owner of the dry cleaner is saying that he didn't know the guardrails were removed. The owner of the dry cleaner can still be liable for your injuries.
When you arrived at the dry cleaners to repair the equipment, you were considered a business invitee. This status means that you are a person invited to enter a commercial premises for the purpose of doing business, and in your situation, to repair equipment. Businesses have a duty to protect their business invitees from injury caused by unreasonably dangerous conditions on the premises. Therefore, the managers/owners of the dry cleaners had a duty to inspect for dangerous conditions and to either correct them or warn you about them.
The fact that the owner did not know that the guardrails were removed is not a defense and does not absolve his liability. As an owner of the store, he needed to check the second floor after the previous contractor finished their work to make sure everything is in proper working order. If the owner had checked, he would have noticed that the guardrails were removed. Prior to you coming to fix the equipment, he would have either fixed it or warned you about it if he did not have a chance to fix it before you arrived.
As for the previous contractor who removed the guardrails, it is probably advisable to also sue that contactor, even though the prior contractor may not have insurance or meaningful assets, in addition to the dry cleaning establishment. This is due to issues related to joint and several liability. The actual facts regarding insurance, assets, when and why the guardrails were removed, who knew about it and who should have known about it can really only be determined through formal discovery after a lawsuit is filed.
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