Oftentimes, we hire individuals or companies based upon very little investigation. Such was the case in Suarez v. Gonzalez, 820 So. 2d 342, (Fla. 4th DCA 2002). In Suarez, an owner’s daughter hired a handyman and paid him in cash. There was no contract. The owner could not remember the man’s name, the company or business name, nor whether the man was licensed. No permit was pulled for the work. The person was selected by virtue of having a truck with some cabinets in it that was in the neighborhood.
The contractor incorrectly hung cabinets in the owner’s home which subsequently fell upon the tenant. The tenant sued the owner for negligent hiring and ultimately recovered over $2.7 million from the owner. On appeal, the question for the Court was whether the owner of the property was vicariously liable for the negligence of the contractor. The Court ruled that, in that case, the owner was liable.
The general rule in Florida is that an employer of an independent contractor is not liable for the negligence of the independent contractor because the employer has no control over the manner in which the work is done. There is an exception to the general rule. “The rule has been widely adopted that an employer of an independent contractor may be liable to one injured as a result of the contractor’s fault where it is shown that the employer was negligent in selecting a careless or incompetent person with whom to contract.” Suarez v. Gonzalez, 820 So. 2d 342, 344 (Fla. 4th DCA 2002) (quoting W. Stock Ctr., Inc. v. Sevit, Inc., 195 Colo. 372, 578 P.2d 1045, 1048 (1978)).
In other words, under certain circumstances, a homeowner may be held liable for the negligence of their contractor if they failed to conduct appropriate due diligence before hiring that contractor. The Court in Suarez held that the owner was liable for the contractor’s negligence because she failed to conduct sufficient due diligence:
Suarez made no inquiry into the contractor’s qualifications. She obtained no references. She did not even make the minimal inquiry of whether the contractor operated in the area “under a license and a business name.” Matanuska, 386 P.2d at 704. She could not recall his name, or whether he operated under any business name. She did not know whether he held himself out in the community as a carpenter or handyman for interior improvements. She had no basis for knowing whether the contractor had the knowledge, skill, experience, and available equipment to hang the cabinets.
Suarez v. Gonzalez, 820 So. 2d 342, 347 (Fla. 4th DCA 2002).
Now, before you start an FBI level inquiry into every contractor you hire, the duty to conduct due diligence prior to hiring a contractor is not the same in every circumstance. The amount of due diligence required depends on the nature of the activity being performed by the contractor as well as some other factors. As the Court in Suarez stated,
For the typical homeowner, there is no duty to make a specific, detailed inquiry into the qualifications of a contractor hired to perform a non-dangerous activity. Where someone holds himself out in the community as a contractor, a prospective employer has the right to rely on the presumption that the contractor will perform his work in a manner as to discharge his legal duties owing to his employers and third persons.
Suarez v. Gonzalez, 820 So. 2d 342, 346 (Fla. 4th DCA 2002)
In determining how much due diligence an owner must perform, the Court will consider three factors:
(1) the danger to which others will be exposed if the contractor’s work is not properly done; (2) the character of the work to be done-whether the work lies within the competence of the average man or is work which can be properly done only be persons possessing special skill and training; and (3) the existence of a relation between the parties which imposes upon the one a peculiar duty of protecting the other.
Suarez v. Gonzalez, 820 So. 2d 342, 345 (Fla. 4th DCA 2002)
The Court in Suarez held that it was the third factor–the relationship between a landlord and tenant–which created a greater duty by the owner to perform due diligence in that case.
Thus, selecting a contractor can have serious consequences depending on the work you would like that contractor to perform and/or the location of that work. Notwithstanding this potential legal duty, it is important that homeowners conduct due diligence on their contractors for their own protection. Even the most experienced contractors make mistakes, so confirming that a contractor is properly insured is crucial in most circumstances.
Additionally, not every person with a labeled truck has the appropriate license to perform the work you may be requesting. You should always ensure your contractor has the proper license to perform the work you are requesting. Go to http://www.myfloridalicense.com/DBPR/ to verify any contractor’s license in Florida.
Lastly, you should always check into a contractor’s reputation. Ask around and see whether other people who have hired a contractor are happy with his work. Check online for reviews and/or complaints. Ensuring that a contractor has been competent performing other similar jobs can help you ensure you are hiring the right contractor.
If you are considering a major renovation job, always be sure to hire a licensed, insured, and reputable contractor to perform the work. Otherwise, you may be on the hook for their negligence. A little bit of due diligence can save you a lot of trouble in the future.
Boatman Ricci regularly represents both homeowners and contractors in construction disputes, and vigorously defends their rights. If you need assistance please contact Boatman Ricci at (239)-330-1494.
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