Davis v. Baugh Industrial Contractors, Inc.
Supreme Court of Washington
159 Wash.2d 413, 150 P.3d 545 (2007)
Case Background Glacier Northwest hired Baugh Industrial Contactors to build a processing facility that included a system of underground pipes. Three years later, Glacier suspected a leak in a pipe. It assigned an employee, Alan Davis, to uncover the leak, which he did. While he was down in a hole dug to get to the pipes, a concrete wall collapsed, killing him. While the pipes were supposed to last 100 years, it is likely they had been damaged when installed, resulting in a leak. Tami Davis, Alan’s daughter, sued Baugh and others, contending their negligent practices were the cause of Alan’s death.
The trial court, called the superior court, held for Baugh and dismissed the suit. Under the traditional common law rule, the contractor was not liable for such an accident, so the risk of liability was on the property owner, Glacier. This decision was appealed to the Washington state high court which then issued this decision.
Case Decision Chambers, Justice
Under the completion and acceptance doctrine, once an independent contractor finishes work on a project, and the work has been accepted by the owner, the contractor is no longer liable for injuries to third parties, even if the work was negligently performed. Historically, after completion and acceptance, the risk of liability for the project belonged solely to the property owner. This court has not addressed this doctrine in over 40 yeajrs and, in the meantime, 37 states have rejected it. Under the modern…approach, a builder or construction contractor is liable for injury or damage to a third person as a result of negligent work, even after completion and acceptance of that work, when it was reasonably foreseeable that a third person would be injured due to that negligence.
We join the vast majority of our sister states and abandon the ancient Completion and Acceptance Doctrine. We find it does not accord with currently accepted principles of liability…
The Completion and Acceptance Doctrine is also grounded in the assumption that if owners of land inspect and accept the work, the owner should be responsible for any defects in that accepted work. While this assumption may have been well founded in the mists of history, it can no longer be justified. Today, wood and metal have been replaced with laminates, composites, and aggregates. Glue has been replaced with molecularly altered adhesives. Wiring, plumbing, and other mechanical components are increasingly concealed in conduits or buried under the earth. In short, construction has become highly scientific and complex. Landowners increasingly hire contractors for their expertise and a non-expert landowner is often incapable of recognizing substandard performance.…
We conclude that the Doctrine of Completion and Acceptance is outmoded, incorrect, and harmful and join the modern majority of states that have abandoned it in favor of the [modern] approach [holding a builder or contractor liable for injury due to negligent work]. We reverse the superior court order…and remand for further proceedings in keeping with this holding.
Questions for Analysis
1. The court rejected the common law rule concerning completion and acceptance that had been in effect until this decision and ordered a new trial. What was the key reason for that decision? How does the new rule affect liability?
2. A judge on the court dissented from the decision. Explaining his opposition to the decision of the majority, he said this change in the law should have been done by the legislature in a statute, not the court. What are the practical problems with such a view?