Florida courts have consistently held that general contractors have a duty to subcontractors, as business invitees (1) to use reasonable care in maintaining property in a reasonably safe condition, and (2) to warn of dangers that are unknown to the invitee and cannot be discovered by the invitee through the exercise of reasonable care. Tallent v. Pilot Travel Ctrs., LLC, 137 So.3d 616, 617 (Fla. 2d DCA 2014). The 2nd District Court of Appeals of Florida published an opinion on January 15, 2021 detailing further nuances to Florida law that may have lasting effects on a general contractor’s duty to safeguard subcontractors and avoid negligence liability. This opinion is set forth in Pratus v. Marzucco’s Construction & Coatings, Inc., 2021 WL 140563 (Fla. 2d DCA 2021).
Pratus involves an employee of an electrical subcontractor suing a general contractor overseeing a parking garage construction project for negligence after stepping into an uncovered drain on the site. There were about a hundred drains on the construction site, and whether the general contractor covered a particular drain depended on the phase of construction. The subcontractor employee had previously seen the drain he stepped in various times during his work on site, though it had previously been closed and marked with caution tape which was removed on the day of the incident. There was also dust in the air on the day of the incident from concrete grinding work, which allegedly blinded the subcontractor employee. The subcontractor employee alleged that the general contractor breached its duty to maintain the premises in a reasonably safe condition by leaving the drain uncovered and failing to warn of its danger. The general contractor sought a summary judgment, arguing that the danger of the uncovered drain was open and obvious.
The January 2021 opinion in Pratus is a denial of the general contractor’s motion for summary judgment. While this case has not come to a full resolution, the opinion has ramifications for general contractors.
Looking to the reasoning of the opinion offers some guidance on Florida law. Even though the court held that the drain itself was deemed “indisputably obvious,” the court held that whether the drain’s dangerous condition was obvious or not was a question of fact precluding summary judgment. Under this opinion, even though an open drain is in plain sight, and its existence is obvious, whether the drain is obviously dangerous is a separate question of fact, which means a negligence case based on a dangerous working condition could go all the way to a jury trial.
It might seem strange that the general contractor in Pratus may be held liable when the subcontractor’s employee was actually aware of the drain. The court reasoned that whether the general contractor should have anticipated the harm to the subcontractor employee as part of the general contractor’s duty to maintain the premises in a reasonably safe condition was an issue of fact. This issue of fact includes whether the general contractor should have foreseen the dust in the air from concrete grinding potentially blinding the subcontractor employee. However, the court elaborated that the subcontractor employee’s knowledge of the condition is a matter of comparative negligence. As a result, a jury will likely decide to what extent the general contractor and subcontractor employee are at fault by apportioning each a percentage at trial.
The Pratus case is a useful illustration of the duties Florida law imposes on general contractors to safeguard subcontractors and their employees, including foreseeing circumstances that may combine to create dangerous conditions and remedying and warning subcontractors and their employees about the same. There is ultimately no telling what happens in the Pratus case, but general contractors would be wise to learn from it and stay aware of ongoing developments in Florida law.