Brown v. City of Oil City, 2023 WL 3471043 (Pa. May 16, 2023)

Pennsylvania Supreme Court extends contractor liability for obvious defects in completed work.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court addressed whether a contractor bears the risk of future injuries regarding hidden (latent) defects in its work if an owner is also aware of a defect but chooses not to correct it. 

The City of Oil City engaged Struxures to develop plans for the reconstruction of stairs in a public library that had been built back in 1904. Following competitive bidding, the city hired Fred Burns, Inc. to remove the existing stairs and install new concrete stairs. 

Burns completed installing the new concrete stairs by the end of 2011. However, in early 2012, the city began receiving reports that the concrete stairs were deteriorating. On February 28, 2012, the city notified Struxures of the condition and that it regarded the stairs as dangerous and defective. Thereafter, on September 12, 2013, Struxures notified Burns that it considered it to be Burns’ defective workmanship that created a dangerous condition. 

Even though the city and the contractors were aware of the defective condition, nobody repaired the stairs, nor did anyone warn the public about the dangerous condition. 

More than three years after the city learned of the dangerous condition, on November 23, 2015, Kathryn Brown exited the library and began to walk down the stairs. While doing so, she tripped on a deteriorated area of the stair and suffered a fatal injury. Her husband filed a lawsuit naming the city and the contractors as defendants. Although the city agreed to settle with the plaintiff, the contractors filed motions for summary judgment, seeking to have the action dismissed because they did not owe a duty to third parties after completing the project as the defect was known to the city. The trial court granted the motions, but on appeal, the Commonwealth Court reversed, finding the fact that the city knew of the defect did not relieve the contractors of liability.

On further appeal, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed with the Commonwealth Court, finding that, under Pennsylvania law, liability to third parties for defective work does not turn on whether the defect is latent or patent. Instead, the Supreme Court determined that when a contractor “creates a hazard which, without the need for a prophetic telescope, proclaims potential injury to the public, he may not plead immunity from liability for resulting damage on the basis that his responsibility ceased with the insertion of the last bolt and the driving of the final nail.”

In rendering its decision, the court recognized that an owner’s inaction when aware of a dangerous condition may make the owner liable. However, the Supreme Court did not determine whether the contractors were liable, instead, merely held that the city’s knowledge of the defects in the concrete stairs did not shield the contractors from liability.


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