Construction is, by its very nature, a dangerous industry. Workers perform difficult physical labor, sometimes at great heights or with heavy machinery. Non-worker bystanders and pedestrians can be injured by falling debris or other dangers. The number of things that can go wrong seem infinite. In 2012, 183,000 construction workers were injured -- and 775 died -- in job-related accidents in the United States. Every year, there are more work-related injuries in construction than in most other industries.
But construction work can be performed safely. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), a division of the Department of Labor, promulgates safety standards that every employer should follow.
Personal injury law also promotes construction safety by holding unsafe actors accountable. Anyone, whether a worker or any other person, may be able to sue after being injured at or near a construction site. This article discusses the most common types of personal injury lawsuits related to construction and the basic parameters of each type of case.
OSHA has dubbed four categories of construction worker injuries "the fatal four" because they account for approximately 60% of construction worker deaths. These four injuries are falls, electrocutions, "struck by object," and "caught in-between."
But a worker need not be fatally injured on the job to file a lawsuit. Even minor injuries may entitle a worker to compensation for injuries.
The most important factor that will influence a worker's potential recovery in a lawsuit is whether workers' compensation rules apply.
All 50 states have some form of workers' compensation system in place. Under these rules, when an employee is injured on the job, the employee is entitled to compensation for the injuries, even if the employer did not act negligently. However, the employee is usually able to recover less in a workers' compensation case than he or she would be able to recover in a standard personal injury lawsuit. So, workers' compensation rules represent a compromise. It's a no-fault system, but it's also an injured worker's exclusive remedy in most cases.
Workers' compensation laws do not apply to every lawsuit brought by an injured worker. Laws vary by state, but generally, workers' compensation rules only apply between a worker and his or her direct employer. So, imagine that an employee of a subcontractor is injured on a job. If the worker sues the subcontractor, workers' compensation rules will usually apply. But if the worker sues the manufacturer of faulty equipment, workers' compensation rules won't apply.
Since lawsuits that are brought outside of workers' compensation rules often come with the potential for higher damage awards, an injured worker may want to explore all avenues of prospective liability outside of workers' comp.
Of course, other people can be injured at construction sites. Falling debris can hit pedestrians. Unmarked roadway construction can lead to collisions. A child can wander onto a construction site and become injured.
General contractors usually have a duty to at least warn the public of dangerous construction conditions. In some situations, contractors have an obligation to do more, such as make the conditions safe.
At minimum, a contractor must take the safety precautions that other reasonably qualified contractors would take in similar circumstances.
In some states, if a contractor fails to take the proper safety precautions, the contractor will be liable for any injury resulting from the failure. In other states, liability is not automatic, but the failure can be used by an injured person as evidence that the contractor should be liable for the injuries in a lawsuit.
Construction can cause injuries after active operations have been completed. A builder might fail to properly secure a heavy object, causing it to fall through a second story floor. An architect might fail to design a balcony with a high enough guard rail, causing a person to fall.
These situations can also lead to lawsuits. It is critical in a construction defect case to determine which party was negligent. Did the contractor fail to construct the building according to specifications, or did engineers or architects fail to properly design the building or plan the project in the first place?
In any of the above cases (except workers' compensation cases, which follow special rules), an injured individual may be entitled to the following types of damages as compensation:
For more on available damages in a lawsuit, see our section on damages and compensation.