Construction lawsuit plaintiffs may bring negligence and products liability claims against their contractors and other responsible parties for causing injuries and property damage. Even if individual constructions worker were at fault, their employer should be financially liable under vicarious liability laws. And if someone dies in the accident, the victim’s family may be able to sue for wrongful death.
Below, our California personal injury lawyers discuss:
- 1. Can I sue my contractor for bad construction?
- 2. What legal claims can I bring?
- 3. What money damages can I get?
- 4. How long do I have to bring a construction lawsuit?
- 5. What if I was partly at fault?
- 6. Can construction workers sue if they get injured?
1. Can I sue my contractor for bad construction?
Yes, property owners may sue their contractors for poor workmanship. And depending on the case, property owners may also have legal causes of action against:
- The architect(s)
- The engineers
- The construction company
- Construction machine manufacturers
- Individual construction workers
- Government agencies (federal, state, or local)
- Any other party that may share liability for poor construction
2. What legal claims can I bring?
Plaintiffs in construction defect lawsuits typically can bring one or more of the following claims against contractors or other liable parties:
- Vicarious Liability of an Employee
- Product Defects
- Wrongful death
Note that plaintiffs may also have a breach of contract claim against contractors as well.
The majority of construction lawsuits involve negligence claims. There are four elements plaintiffs must bring to prevail in a lawsuit:
- The defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care;
- The defendant breached that duty of care; and
- This breach resulted in the plaintiff’s injuries; and
- This injury caused money damages.1
For example, contractors have the duty to use materials that meet industry standards for construction projects. If they rely on substandard materials, that qualifies as a breach. If this breach then leads to property damage or physical injuries, victims have a negligence claim against the contractors.
2.2. Vicarious Liability of an Employee
Some construction problems are caused by the negligent actions of an individual construction worker or other employee, not by a higher-up. Plaintiffs can sue these individual workers for negligence, but chances are they would not be able to afford to pay much. But under respondeat superior laws, employers may be vicariously liable for their workers’ negligence.2
Example: George bought a custom home in Henderson. Soon the roof collapses due to a mistake one of the workers made. George can then sue the worker’s employer – the company that built the custom home – for negligence. The company had vicarious liability over its workers. And the company has much deeper pockets than its workers.
2.3. Product Defects
When construction is hampered by defective materials or machines, plaintiffs can bring a products liability lawsuit against the responsible parties. These potential defendants include the companies behind the:
With product defects lawsuits, plaintiffs do not need to prove that the defendants knew about the problem. Since products liability is based on strict liability, plaintiffs instead have to show that:
- The product was somehow defective;
- The plaintiff used the product in the way it was meant to be used;
- The product caused the plaintiff’s injuries; and
- The injuries resulted in money damages.
Examples of product defects include:
- Machines that cause electric shocks or electrocution
- Tractors and cranes that have not been maintained
- Cables or wires that cause fires at the construction site
- Faulty scaffolding
- Broken ladders
- Heavy machinery that lacks sufficient safety warnings and instructions
2.4. Wrongful death
When construction accidents cause someone to die, the victim’s family may be able to sue for wrongful death. In California, qualifying plaintiffs may include (in order):
- Surviving spouses;
- Domestic partners;
- Grandchildren; or
- Anyone else entitled to the victim’s estate under intestate succession laws.
Wrongful death damages may include:
- Funeral and burial expenses;
- Loss of financial support the victim would have provided;
- Value of services the victim would have provided; and
- Loss of companionship, support, and affection.4
3. What money damages can I get?
Depending on the nature of the construction defects and the extent of the injuries, plaintiffs may be able to get compensatory damages for:
- Medical costs (including hospital bills, home health long-term care, medication, medical equipment and rehab / physical therapy)
- Pain and suffering (including emotional distress)
- Lost wages
- Loss of future income
- Loss of consortium
- Injury to reputation
If the case goes to trial and the plaintiff wins, the court may also award punitive damages if it finds that the defendant acted with extreme recklessness, fraud, or intentionally caused harm. Punitive damages – which are meant to punish the defendant – can often be much bigger than compensatory damages – which are meant to make the plaintiff “whole.”5
Note that the majority of construction lawsuits never reach trial and resolve through a negotiated settlement with the defendants’ insurance companies.
4. How long do I have to bring a construction lawsuit?
Each state has a different statute of limitations to take legal action. In California, it is typically two years after the construction defect or injury is discovered.6
People who sustained injuries or property damage from construction problems should consult with an attorney right away. Gathering evidence, hiring experts, and crafting a case take time. If plaintiffs wait too long, the window to file the lawsuit and recover a settlement may pass.
5. What if I was partly at fault?
Plaintiffs may still be able to recover damages in a construction lawsuit even if they were partly to blame. But the money damages they receive may be less than if they were blameless. For instance under California’s “comparative fault” law, courts reduce a plaintiff’s damages amount in proportion to their own fault.7
Example: Jeff hires Bill to build a small commercial office building. Jeff chooses a location where the soil is loose. And Bill uses plywood that is thinner than industry standards. One night during construction the building collapses in a windstorm. Jeff sues Bill for using bad materials. But Bill argues that Jeff doomed the structural integrity by choosing a location with bad soil.
The case fails to settle and goes to trial. The jury finds Bill 75% liable and Jeff 25% liable for the construction problems. The building collapse set Jeff back one million dollars. But since Jeff was a quarter liable, the jury awards him only 75% of the damages. Therefore, Jeff will walk away with $750,000. Had the soil foundation been sound, Bill would have been on the hook for the full million.
Every state has its own comparative / contributory negligence laws on if and how to apportion damages when more than one party is at fault.
6. Can construction workers sue if they get injured?
Injured construction workers usually cannot sue their employers for workplace injuries. Instead, they rely on their employer’s workers’ compensation to pay for their medical bills and lost wages. But if the injury was caused by a third-party – such as an equipment manufacturer or property owner – the worker should be able to sue that third-party.
Note that construction workers who are independent contractors may file suit against their employers for workplace injuries. Workers’ comp does not cover them.
Learn more about construction accidents.
- California Civil Jury Instructions (“CACI”) 400.
- Perez v. Van Groningen & Sons, Inc. (1986) 41 Cal.3d 962.
- CACI Series 1200 — Products Liability; Soule v. GM Corp. (1994) 8 Cal.4th 548.
- California Code of Civil Procedure 377.60; Vander Lind v. Superior Court (1983) 146 Cal.App.3d 358; See California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 3921.
- CACI 3940.
- California Code of Civil Procedure §335.1.
- California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 405.