A divided South Dakota Supreme Court ruled that a construction worker could not maintain a negligence claim against the general contractor responsible for the project in which he was injured.
JM Custom Homes served as the general contractor for a home construction project in Rapid City. It subcontracted Pine Tree Plumbing, for which plaintiff Douglas Ries worked, to complete plumbing work on the home, according to the ruling issued Wednesday Ries v. JM Custom Homes LLC.
Mr. Ries was injured when he fell down an unanchored plywood staircase leading from the main level to the basement.
He successfully filed a workers’ compensation claim and then filed a negligence suit against JM in circuit court, alleging it was negligent because it used unanchored, half-inch plywood on each step and failed to install handrails.
A circuit court granted summary judgment in favor of JM, which argued that it was immune from civil liability because it was subject to potential workers̵7; compensation liability.
Four of the five state Supreme Court justices agreed that because a general contractor is subject to the same no-fault liability for workers’ compensation as an immediate employer under South Dakota law, it has statutory immunity from negligence.
“Even if Ries was required by law to file a claim against Pine Tree, JM remained potentially liable for workers’ compensation benefits,” the court said. Thus, he was limited to the recovery of benefits, which he received from Pine Tree.
The dissenting judge said the court should not have affirmed the summary judgment because JM failed to show that it is an “employer” entitled to immunity under the exclusive remedy provisions of the workers’ compensation statute.
Because JM did not secure the payment for Ries required of an employer, the dissenting judge argued, it should not have been able to claim the immunity granted to employers.
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