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Birmingham Bar Association Bulletin - Fall 2013

Contractor Liability Jennifer Pickett In Weaver and Sons, Inc. v. Balch, the Supreme Court of Alabama considered the following issue: Whether a road-construction company, which has been granted authority to perform work on a road under contract with ALDOT and has completed its work on a road to the satisfaction of ALDOT, owes a duty of care to the users of the road after ALDOT has assumed responsibility for the maintenance of the road. ___ So. 3d ___, 1100637 (Ala. June 28, 2013). In Balch, three individuals were killed when the vehicle in which they were traveling on Highway 84 in Clarke County, Alabama crossed the centerline and collided with a tractor-trailer truck. Th e accident occurred when the claimants’ vehicle left the right side of the roadway and encountered a shoulder drop-off , causing the driver to lose control and cross back over the centerline. Six years previously, Weaver, a roadconstruction company, entered into a contract with ALDOT to perform resurfacing work on Highway 84. Upon completion of the project in 2002, ALDOT accepted the work and assumed maintenance of the highway. Th e Supreme Court of Alabama noted that “ALDOT controls the public roads of this State, and a road-construction company can perform work on a public road only with ALDOT’s permission.” More- Recent Decision from Supreme Court of Alabama Limiting Liability of Road-Construction Contractors over, once the construction company has completed its work under a contract with ALDOT and ALDOT has accepted the work and assumed maintenance responsibility of the roadway, the construction company no longer has any authority to perform work on the roadway. Given the above, the court adopted the “accepted-work doctrine,” as follows: “It has long been the general rule that an independent contractor is not liable for injuries occurring to a third person after the contractor has completed the work and turned it over to the owner, and it has been accepted by him, even though the injury results from the contractor’s negligent performance of the contract or his failure to perform it properly, at least if the defect in the work is not hidden, but is readily observable on reasonable inspection.” Th e rule applies to work that is performed pursuant to a government contract because of a construction company’s limited authority to perform work on a public road and because of ALDOT’s responsibility to superintend the public roads. In this case, because ALDOT accepted Weaver’s work and assumed maintenance responsibility for Highway 84, the road-construction company owed no duty of care to the decedents. Weaver, therefore, was entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Chief Justice Moore concurred; however, he disagreed with the adoption of the “accepted-work doctrine,” noting that a plaintiff now has no recourse once ALDOT accepts the contractor’s work, as long as any defect is readily observable upon reasonable inspection. He states as follows: “Finally, although in this case the Court could have reached the same result by holding that Weaver’s alleged negligence was not the proximate cause of the accident, the adoption of the accepted-work doctrine will cut off liability for contractors in future cases where it is undisputed that the contractor’s negligence, which resulted in an open and obvious defect that was readily observable on reasonable inspection, was in fact the proximate cause of the resulting injury.” Obviously, the question going forward will be whether any alleged defect was “readily observable under reasonable inspection.” In practice, this new decision will signifi cantly reduce the liability of road-construction contractors. G Contributor Juennifer Pickett 12 Birmingham Bar Association


Birmingham Bar Association Bulletin - Fall 2013
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