June 2010

Who is responsible if someone is injured?

This very issue was the subject of a recent decision by the Court of Appeal of Québec (Ethier and ING Insurance Company v. Briand, EYB 2010-172308).

On September 28, 2002, friends and family voluntarily met up at the appellant's home to help reroof his house. No one had any particular experience in renovations or construction, except for the appellant's father who had basic building knowledge.

The appellant rented two pneumatic nail guns and two hoses to connect the tools to the compressed air supply. The compressor remained on the ground while the hoses were installed flat on the roof to make the nail guns easily accessible. When the nail guns were in use or moved, the hoses moved also.

On the second day of the project, the respondent (the appellant's uncle by marriage) made his way to the edge of the roof to take measurements, where he tripped over a raised hose and fell 20 feet. The other workers did not notice the accident until they saw the victim lying unconscious on the ground.

The respondent suffered multiple fractures, was hospitalized for several days and experienced a period of amnesia. In light of his injuries, he later sued the appellant, the property owner, for damages and interest.

The Québec Superior Court ruled in favour of the respondent and ordered the appellant to pay out $122,000 in damages. However, the Court of Appeal reversed the decision, finding no reason to fault the appellant.

The Court of Appeal was of the opinion that the event constituted an unfortunate accident and that the property owner had not been at fault, causing the fall. In fact, the volunteer himself recognized the risks involved in carry out roof work.

There were no particular safety measures that the appellant should have taken in this case. The respondent knew that the appellant did not have roofing experience, and the appellant was therefore not responsible for providing any safety guidelines. There were no traps on the premises, and the respondent knew where the hoses had been placed and that they could be moved.

The Court of Appeal therefore determined the liability burden of the property owner who calls upon the help of friends - a common occurrence. The decision certainly constitutes a warning to volunteer workers to be prudent.