Pelletier v. Sordoni/Skanska Construction Co.

CourtSupreme Court of Connecticut
Writing for the CourtBORDEN, J.
Citation264 Conn. 509,825 A.2d 72
Decision Date01 July 2003

Sullivan, C. J., and Borden, Norcott, Palmer and Zarella, Js. William H. Clendenen, Jr., with whom were Nancy L. Walker and, on the brief, Kevin C. Shea, for the appellants in both appeals (plaintiffs).

Joseph B. Burns, with whom was Zisca R. Burkley, for the appellee in Docket No. SC 16743 (defendant).

Anthony J. Natale, with whom were Michael A. Fusco and, on the brief, Richard F. Wareing, for the appellee in Docket No. SC 16747 (defendant Professional Services Industries, Inc.).

Donna Civitello and Robert F. Carter filed briefs for The Connecticut Trial Lawyers Association and The Workers' Compensation Section of the Connecticut Bar Association as amici curiae.



In these two consolidated appeals, the plaintiffs, Norman Pelletier, and his wife, Reine Pelletier,1 appeal2 from the summary judgment of the trial court, rendered in favor of the defendants, Sordoni/Skanska Construction Company (Sordoni) and Professional Services Industries, Inc. (Professional Services).3 The plaintiff claims that the trial court improperly determined that neither Sordoni nor Professional Services could be held liable to the plaintiff for alleged negligence, and that Sordoni could not be held liable for breach of contract. We reverse the judgment regarding the negligence claim against Sordoni, and we affirm the judgment in all other respects.

The following procedural history is relevant to our resolution of these appeals. In his complaint, the plaintiff alleged negligence as to both Sordoni and Professional Services, and breach of contract as to Sordoni alone. Both defendants moved for summary judgment. Sordoni argued that, pursuant to the rule set forth by the Appellate Court in Ray v. Schneider, 16 Conn. App. 660, 548 A.2d 461, cert. denied, 209 Conn. 822, 551 A.2d 756 (1988), it could not be held liable in negligence to the employee of its independent subcontractor. Sordoni also argued that the contract that was alleged in count two of the complaint did not exist. Professional Services argued that it did not owe a duty to the plaintiff under its subcontract with Sordoni. The trial court granted both motions for summary judgment and rendered judgment for the defendants accordingly. These appeals followed.

The parties presented the following undisputed facts to the trial court on the motions for summary judgment. At the time of the incident giving rise to this action, Sordoni was the general contractor for the "Pitney Bowes project," a building under construction for a large shipping company, Pitney Bowes, Inc. (Pitney Bowes). The plaintiff was an employee of Berlin Steel Construction Company (Berlin Steel), the structural steel fabrication and erection subcontractor for the project. Sordoni hired Professional Services to inspect the work performed by Berlin Steel.

Under its subcontract with Sordoni, Berlin Steel had the responsibility to provide all of the structural steel for the Pitney Bowes project, and to ensure its integrity. This included the duty to weld connections in the structural steel that would allow for the interconnection of steel members as a load-bearing, structural frame for the building. Furthermore, Berlin Steel had the duty to inspect those welds, ensuring their ability to bear weight. Under its contract with Berlin Steel, Sordoni reserved the right to inspect the structural steel, "solely for [its own] benefit." The contractual documents emphasized that Sordoni's "[i]nspection and acceptance, or failure to inspect, shall in no way relieve [Berlin Steel] from [its] responsibility to furnish satisfactory material strictly in compliance with the [c]ontract [d]ocuments."

On June 20, 1994, the plaintiff suffered serious physical injuries in an accident at the Pitney Bowes construction site. At the time of the accident, he was working beneath the building's large steel frame, which his employer, Berlin Steel, had been hired to build. The plaintiff was in the process of installing metal sheet flooring between two steel columns when several of his coworkers interrupted his work to install a two ton crossbeam between the columns. The plaintiff stepped away while his coworkers bolted the crossbeam to seat connections, which are steel flanges that enable the interconnection of large structural members, located on each of the columns. One of the seat connections, on column 313, had been only tack welded to the column. A tack weld is a weak, provisional weld, which is intended only to hold a piece in place pending a full, load-bearing weld. The tack weld on column 313 did not immediately give way under the load of the crossbeam. After his coworkers secured the crossbeam to the seat connections on the columns, the plaintiff returned to work beneath the crossbeam. Within minutes, the seat connection broke and the corresponding end of the crossbeam fell, striking him. The plaintiff suffered severe injuries and is currently recovering workers' compensation benefits from Berlin Steel for his injuries. Further facts and procedural history will be set forth where necessary.

We first set forth the standard of review applicable to both of these appeals. Each appeal arises from a judgment of the trial court granting a motion for summary judgment. "[T]he standard of review of a trial court's decision to grant a motion for summary judgment is well established. Practice Book [§ 17-49] provides that summary judgment shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, affidavits and any other proof submitted show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the trial court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Elliott v. Waterbury, 245 Conn. 385, 391, 715 A.2d 27 (1998). With this standard of review in mind, we turn to the plaintiff's claims on appeal.


In his appeal against Sordoni, the plaintiff claims that the trial court improperly determined that: (1) the general contractor nonliability rule set forth in Ray v. Schneider, supra, 16 Conn. App. 663-65 (injured employee of subcontractor, unlike member of general public, may not sue general contractor for damages based on general contractor's negligence) barred recovery under count one of the plaintiff's complaint, which sounded in negligence; and (2) under the plaintiff's breach of contract count, neither Sordoni's contract with Pitney Bowes nor an orientation and procedures manual that Sordoni had distributed to the plaintiff created a duty to the plaintiff.4 We agree with the plaintiff regarding his negligence count, and we disagree with him regarding his breach of contract count.

The plaintiff's complaint against Sordoni was based on allegations of both negligence and breach of contract. In the negligence count, the plaintiff alleged that Sordoni had breached a range of legal duties, with statutory and public policy sources. More specifically, the plaintiff alleged that Sordoni "knew or in the exercise of reasonable care ... should have known" that the job site was unsafe, and failed to abate the danger of the defective weld. The plaintiff alleged further that Sordoni had a duty to inspect the structural steel, including "all main stress carrying elements, welding material and bolting material ... all steel welds ... [and] the steel frame of the column upon which the seat angle connection collapsed," yet Sordoni failed to do so, in violation of the state building code. Regs., Conn. State Agencies § 29-252-1a. In the breach of contract count, the plaintiff alleged that Sordoni had entered into a contract with the plaintiff, as evidenced by the orientation and procedures manual that Sordoni had required the plaintiff to sign prior to commencing work for Berlin Steel on the project.

In its motion for summary judgment, Sordoni argued that, as a matter of law, with respect to the negligence count, Sordoni, as a general contractor, could not be held liable to the plaintiff, an employee of Sordoni's subcontractor, and that this issue was controlled by Ray v. Schneider, supra, 16 Conn. App. 660. Sordoni also argued that, to the extent that the plaintiff relied on certain contractual duties to provide a safe workplace, such reliance was foreclosed by Ray, and that the contractual documents did not create any duty in favor of the plaintiff. In opposition, the plaintiff argued that Sordoni owed the plaintiff a duty of care arising out of certain contractual documents, that the Ray decision was not controlling, and that certain of the exceptions to the nonliability rule of Ray applied. With respect to the breach of contract claim, Sordoni argued that the orientation and procedures manual did not create any contractual obligations to the plaintiff, but served only as an "acknowledgement that ... [the plaintiff] had reviewed the rules and regulations contained therein, and that his compliance therewith was required in order to work on the [p]roject." In opposition, the plaintiff argued that there were two contractual sources of Sordoni's duty to the plaintiff: (1) Sordoni's contract with Pitney Bowes; and (2) the orientation and procedures manual.

The trial court concluded that the rule of nonliability established in Ray barred the plaintiff's negligence claim. As to the plaintiff's contractual claim, the court ruled that: (1) Sordoni's obligations under its contract with Pitney Bowes were solely for the benefit of Pitney Bowes, and that the plaintiff was not a third party beneficiary of that contract; and (2) the orientation and procedures manual simply set forth general obligations by all involved in the project to...

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