Property Owner Can Owe a Duty to Volunteers Roofers

In Reynolds v. Rich, No. E2015-01245-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. July 22, 2016), the Court of Appeals overturned summary judgment in a negligence case, finding that defendants did owe plaintiff a duty and that there were genuine issues of material fact regarding whether defendants breached that duty.

Defendant father gifted a piece of land to defendant daughter, and the father had taken charge of building a house on the land for the daughter. Defendants tried to secure as much labor as possible through family, friends and volunteers. Defendant father worked with plaintiff at the same company and had known plaintiff “for a number of years.” Father knew that plaintiff had previously re-roofed his own house with metal roofing, so he “asked plaintiff if he would like to help in view of his prior experience in installing such roofing on his own residence, and he agreed.” Plaintiff was not paid for this work, and while he and others were installing the roofing, plaintiff fell and suffered extremely serious injuries. Plaintiff then brought this negligence action.

Defendant father submitted an affidavit that stated that he asked all the volunteers, including plaintiff, whether they had any reservations about the job, and that none voiced any concerns. He averred that he offered plaintiff gloves, but that plaintiff refused, and that he told plaintiff he should stand on the felt material instead of the metal when affixing the metal roofing, but that plaintiff said his shoes were providing good traction. According to the father, “plaintiff did not request any assistance, tools, equipment, harness, rope, scaffold, support, any type of restraint or anything else.” Defendant stated that he did not know what made plaintiff fall, and plaintiff likewise stated that he could not identify the cause of his fall.

Plaintiff testified in his deposition that defendant “never gave [him] instructions or directions on how to install the roof.” He stated that he did not ask for any equipment or ask to be secured. In addition to his own testimony, plaintiff submitted an affidavit from an expert in the construction industry. This expert opined that defendant father had become the general contractor on this house, and that as such he “was responsible for the safety of persons entering the site and working on the home.” He asserted that defendant did not have proper safety equipment and did not provide proper training, and that it was unsafe to install metal roofing without some kind of safety devices. According to this expert, “[h]iring cheap labor or unqualified labor does not except you from responsibilities of individuals working on your project.” In his opinion, defendants were negligent in “failing to appropriately train, supervise and provide appropriate safety equipment for plaintiff.”

Defendants moved for summary judgment, which the trial court granted. The trial court held that the record did not show why plaintiff fell off the roof, did not show that defendants owed plaintiff a duty, and did not show that defendants breached any duty. Instead, the trial court found that “plaintiff had a duty to exercise reasonable care for his own safety.”

In overturning summary judgment here, the Court noted that “[i]n analyzing duty, the court must balance the foreseeability and gravity of the potential harm to a plaintiff against the burden imposed on the defendant in protecting against that harm.” (internal citation omitted). The Court pointed out that “a duty can exist even where the injury-causing condition is alleged to be ‘open and obvious’ to the plaintiff.” (internal citation omitted).

Defendants argued that the volunteers had a duty to themselves and to each other, and that defendants thus did not owe a duty to the volunteers. The Court rejected this argument, though, finding that while “the volunteers had a duty to exercise reasonable care to avoid injury to themselves and each other, this in no way means that defendants did not owe a duty to Plaintiff.” Ultimately, the Court held:

[I]t is clear that the reasonably foreseeable probability and gravity of harm from a possible fall while installing a roof outweighs the burden upon defendants to engage in alternative conduct which would prevent such a risk of harm. Thus, defendants use of volunteers to install the roof gave rise to a duty for defendants to act with reasonable care. We, therefore, hold that defendants did owe a duty to Plaintiff.

Having found that a duty existed, the Court then held that there were genuine issues of material facts regarding whether defendants breached said duty, as there were factual questions surrounding whether defendants should have done more to ensure the roofers’ safety. Accordingly, summary judgment was overturned.

On appeal, defendants also asserted that summary judgment was also appropriate here because of comparative fault, alleging that plaintiff was at least 50% at fault for his fall. The Court rejected this argument, holding that it could not “say that a rational trier of fact could not find that the percentage of fault attributable to Plaintiff was less than 50%.”

The Court definitely got this case right. First, the Court was right to determine that the use of volunteer roofers did not absolve defendants of their entire duty of care. As the owners of the property, defendants still had a duty to exercise reasonable care to the individuals coming to help build the house. Second, while there was no evidence of exactly why plaintiff fell, plaintiff offered expert testimony that at least created a fact issue regarding whether defendant was required to do more to ensure the volunteer roofers’ safety. Considering the factual disputes here, summary judgment was not appropriate, and the Court of Appeals correctly overturned the trial court.