In August 2009, plaintiff Patrick Chaplain, a carpenter, was working at a house being renovated by a contractor. His employment status, i.e., whether he was an employee or sub-contractor, is unclear. Plaintiff was cutting prefinished wood flooring on a table saw owned by the contractor, when his left hand was struck by the table saw blade, amputating several fingers. The safety guard was not on the table saw at the time.
Plaintiff sued the contractor under Louisiana Civil Code Article 2317, which governs liability for things in one’s custody, and Article 2317.1, which governs the liability of the owner or custodian of a thing for damage caused by ruin, vice, or defect in things. The contractor filed a motion for summary judgment which the trial court granted.
On appeal, the Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal noted that plaintiff had been a carpenter for 30 years, worked with prefinished wood floorboards before, seen operating manuals for table saws but never read them, and seen warning labels saying that the table saw should only be used with the guard in place. Plaintiff knew the guard was not on the table saw at the time of his accident. In order to use the table saw to perform the cuts he needed to make, the blade guard could not be installed. Plaintiff was aware of other tools he could have used to make the cuts he needed to make. The contractor, after hiring plaintiff, bought a new table saw and gave the box to plaintiff and his son for assembly. A blade guard was included in the box, but the saw was assembled without the guard.
In order to prevail on a claim under Article 2317, a plaintiff must prove that the thing which caused damage was in the defendant’s custody and control (garde), the thing had a vice or defect which created an unreasonable risk of harm, and the injuries were caused by a defect. Article 2317.1 adds the requirement that the injured plaintiff prove that the owner/custodian knew, or in the exercise of reasonable care, should have known of the unreasonable risk of harm, that the damage could have been prevented by the exercise of reasonable care, and that the owner/custodian failed to exercise such reasonable care.
The Fourth Circuit affirmed summary judgment on behalf of the contractor, finding that the table saw was under plaintiff’s control at the time of the accident and that plaintiff did not prove that the table saw had a defect much less that the contractor defendant knew of the defect. The accident took place because the blade guard was not on the table saw, “a fact of which [plaintiff] was well aware.” Plaintiff chose to use the table saw even though other tools were available to perform the cuts.
Take-Away: A contractor who does not have custody or control over a tool and did not have knowledge of an alleged defect in the tool cannot be held responsible for injury caused by its use.