A ruling from the Tennessee Supreme Court has made it easier for homeowners to hold contractors responsible for shoddy work by subcontractors.
The court has found that contractors have a duty to perform services in a “careful, skillful, diligent and workmanlike manner” that can’t be fully delegated to another contractor they hire.
The 5-0 ruling in a case from Chattanooga over a botched roof repair job that caused a fire could have broad implications for homeowners and contractors because most home construction and repair work involves bringing in subcontractors to handle parts of the job.
The opinion written by Justice Gary Wade and released last week said this was the first time the state Supreme Court had taken up the issue of whether a contractor was absolved from liability under the contract by hiring a subcontractor.
The case began when Robert and Joanie Emerson signed a contract with Winters Roofing Co. to replace a roof. Company owner Martin Winters subcontracted out the work. When the Emersons complained that the new roof leaked, Winters brought in a different subcontractor for repairs.
The subcontractor used a propane torch on the roof, and a few hours later the house caught fire. A fire investigator for the insurance company concluded the open flame roofing work started the fire, which caused more than $870,000 in damages to the home on Sept. 26, 2007.
Neither Winters nor the subcontractor had liability insurance, although Winters tried to obtain it the day after the fire and then filed a claim that said the fire happened seven days later, the ruling said.
The Emersons’ insurance company sued Winters, who argued that he wasn’t at the site while the subcontractor was working and wasn’t responsible for his mistakes.
The trial court dismissed the lawsuit, saying the couple’s insurance company couldn’t recover damages because the fire wasn’t a foreseeable part of the contract. It also said that the only way Winters could be held responsible was if it was shown that he was negligent in his hiring or supervision of the subcontractor.
Last year the Tennessee Court of Appeals overturned that decision.
“The defendant had an implied duty to perform the services required by his contract with the Emersons in a careful, skillful, diligent, and workmanlike manner,” the Supreme Court ruling says.
It concluded that while Winters had lawfully delegated his responsibility to install a proper roof to the subcontractors, he still was liable for the shoddy work.