Liability Concerns When Renovating Your Home
Source: Vancouver Sun
An accident in which a roofer was killed when he fell through the skylight of former premier Gordon Campbell’s vacation home is highlighting a little-known piece of contract law that can have huge implications for homeowners.
In a report released publicly Monday, WorkSafeBC said Campbell, as the homeowner, became the “prime contractor” because he failed to assign that written role to the general contractor whose company was doing some renovations on his Sunshine Coast home last July. As a result, the former premier had the legal responsibility for coordinating and establishing compliance with health and safety requirements.
The accident occurred when David Lesko, an employee of Weather Tight Supplies Ltd., lost his balance and fell nearly 18 feet to his death. At the time he was wearing a fall arrest harness but had not secured it to an anchor point. Three other employees of the company were also on the roof, all without fall arrest equipment. Weather Tight was registered with WorkSafeBC, but in the past had been cited several times by the provincial agency for not complying with its acts and regulations.
WorkSafe spokeswoman Donna Freeman WorkSafe said Monday that Campbell was given a written order of what he must do to comply in future as a prime contractor. WorkSafe is also considering levying a penalty against Weather Tight, she said.
Paul Devine, a lawyer with Miller Thomson who specializes in health and safety law, said the accident illustrates how little homeowners know about their legal responsibilities when they hire contractors to do work around their home.
Most people don’t realize they should check to make sure the company they hire is registered with WorkSafe or that they are financially responsible if an unregistered worker is hurt on the job. They also have no clue that they should assign the role of prime contractor to the main company doing the work, Devine said.
“Most homeowners would go out and hire as a contractor and assume they would bring in all the subtrades and make sure they are looked after,” he said. “The problem is under the legislation it says you have to assign a prime contractor in writing and if you don’t the owner becomes the prime contractor. I don’t know that most people think past whether the hiring or whether this person is going to do a good job or the cost of it, rather than about the liability if somebody is injured. Generally speaking I don’t think homeowners think in those terms.”
In Campbell’s case, there were three separate companies working on his project, two groups of carpenters and the roofers. All were registered with WorkSafe. But because no one was assigned as prime contractor, the role of ensuring they all complied with health and safety regulations fell to Campbell, something investigators said the former premier was unaware of. Campbell was not on the site when the accident occurred.
Freeman said because Weather Tight was registered, WorkSafe covered the workers’ compensation insurance for Lesko. But she said in cases where contractors aren’t registered with WorkSafe, homeowners are fully liable for any compensation costs. She said there are fewer than five cases a year in which there are serious accidents or fatalities at an unregistered homeowner work site.
Campbell, who is now Canada’s High Commissioner to Britain and lives in London, did not return a telephone call asking for comment.
Devine said most people he encounters do not know they should make sure people they hire to work around their home are registered with WorkSafe. They leave themselves exposed to potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation costs if someone is injured on the job.
“Do people understand if you are a homeowner that this liability can attach both as the employer and as potentially as a prime contractor? My experience is no,” said Devine. “I see the cases where people have not appreciated that these things are required and the direct liability that can occasion if they don’t make a simple inquiry.”
Devine said homeowners, whether they are hiring one or more contractors should always assign the role of prime contractor to one company. It may be that employees working for that roofing company you hire are independent contractors who don’t have WorkSafe registration, he said. In the case of an accident, the homeowner would become liable for those independents.
Freeman said homeowners can check WorkSafe’s online registration database to ensure their chosen contractor is registered. If it isn’t the homeowner can pay a modest assessment fee to make sure those workers on their property are covered. It is based on a formula of 5.19 per cent of payroll or labour costs.
Freeman cited two examples: if labour costs on the reno job are $20,000 for instance, registration insurance premiums would be $1, 038. A job that required $40,000 labour costs, registration insurance premiums would be $2,076