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Wells v. Smith

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

November 24, 2014

John Wells
v.
R. Suzanne Smith et al

Appeal from Superior Court. Kent County. (KC 11-718). Associate Justice Allen P. Rubine.

For Plaintiff: Russell Bramley, Esq.

For Defendants: Elizabeth A. Bourke, Esq. Donna M. Lamontagne, Esq.

Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.

OPINION

Page 651

Goldberg, Justice.

This case arises out of claims of negligence brought by the plaintiff, John Wells (plaintiff), alleging that R. Suzanne Smith (Smith) and Michael Ead (Ead) (collectively, defendants), negligently caused the plaintiff's injuries. The Supreme Court heard oral argument on October 30, 2014, pursuant to an order directing the parties to appear and show cause why the issues raised in this appeal should not summarily be decided. Following the grant of summary judgment by a justice of the Superior Court, the plaintiff timely appealed. After hearing the arguments of counsel and having reviewed the memoranda of

Page 652

the parties, we are satisfied that cause has not been shown, and we proceed to decide this appeal. For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we affirm the judgment of the Superior Court.

Facts and Travel

In 2007, defendant Smith hired defendant Ead, a contractor, to construct an addition onto her home. During construction, the Department of Environmental Management (DEM) notified Smith that the construction was in violation of the local zoning ordinance and, further, that the addition must be removed. Shortly after receiving notification from DEM that removal was necessary, Smith instructed Ead to cease construction. She also decided to sell the property. Raymond Wells (Raymond[1]) and his wife offered to purchase the property, agreeing to remove the addition in connection with the purchase. Raymond enlisted plaintiff, his brother, to help with the demolition. While working at the site, plaintiff fell from the roof and sustained injuries.[2] On June 13, 2011, plaintiff filed suit against defendants alleging negligence, premises liability, negligent hiring, strict liability, res ipsa loquitur, and negligent design, construction, and inspection for his resulting injuries.

On March 5, 2013, Smith filed a motion for summary judgment, contending that, as the owner, she was not liable for any potential negligence of Ead, an independent contractor and that none of the exceptions to the " independent contractor rule" applied in this case. Specifically, Smith argued " that one who employs an independent contractor is not liable for the negligent acts of the independent contractor." Smith also asserted that she had no duty to maintain or repair the addition and that she was not aware of any defect in its construction. Further, she argued that there was no evidence of an abnormally dangerous condition. Lastly, she averred that plaintiff's res ipsa loquitur argument was without merit. Ead joined in Smith's motion for summary judgment, arguing that plaintiff assumed the risk of his injuries when he elected to climb on the roof and demolish the addition and that a contractor is not liable to third parties for negligence after the contractor's work is accepted.[3]

The plaintiff filed an objection to defendants' motion for summary judgment; and, on June 10, 2013, a hearing on the motion was held in Superior Court. The plaintiff conceded that he did not have any facts to rebut the version of the facts set forth by defendants. However, plaintiff argued that count two--the negligent-hiring count--was still viable against Smith, because Smith knew that Ead was not an experienced contractor, that she observed Ead construct the roof, and that she " knew or should have known that * * * Ead was unqualified to put up the addition." According to plaintiff, because Smith had hired Ead, she was liable to third parties ...


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