Was the principal contractor liable after a carpenter fell from scaffolding on a construction site? Which case won?
Carpenter engaged to work on construction site in NSW
On 31 May 2021, a carpenter began working on a construction site in northern NSW, not far from the Queensland border. The principal contractor on the work site was a company based in Queensland.
The carpenter had been contacted about the job by a NSW colleague he had known for decades, a licensed builder, allegedly on behalf of the principal contractor. The licensed builder then rang the principal contractor to confirm that the carpenter would start work on site the following Monday. There was no paperwork done, nor any employment declaration form filled in with either the licensed builder or with the principal contractor.
The principal contractor’s name was on the gate, and it appeared that this Queensland company was in control of the work site, irrespective of any other contractors. The carpenter assumed that the principal contractor would pay his wages. The licensed builder indicated to the carpenter that all payment had to be put through to the principal contractor.
Carpenter suffers injuries due to fall from scaffolding
On 2 June 2021, the carpenter fell from scaffolding and suffered severe life-threatening injuries. He was airlifted by a helicopter to Gold Coast University Hospital.
The carpenter made a claim against the principal contractor for weekly compensation because of his injuries and consequent inability to work. At the time of determination in December 2022, the carpenter continued to suffer total incapacity for employment.
Principal contractor denies liability for workers compensation claim
In denying the claim, the principal contractor argued that it worked under a management contract with the owners of the property. According to this arrangement, any works on site would be performed either by contractors, or by employees of a contractor.
The principal contractor maintained that the carpenter had his own ABN and was brought onto the work site by the licensed builder, who had workers compensation insurance in NSW.
The principal contractor also provided the following contractual disclaimer in its contract with the property owners:
[The Principal contractor] will perform no work on the construction site other than to observe the progress, communicate with contractors, suppliers and service providers and report progress to the client. Constructions means, methods, techniques, sequences, procedures and safety on site are the sole responsibility of the contractors, suppliers and service providers working for the client.
Principal contractor’s role on construction site
The principal contractor was responsible for arranging for the work to be done on the job site and determining which contractors would carry out which work, at what rate. It also monitored the work carried out by subcontractors and checked their invoices to determine whether to recommend payment by the property owners.
The principal contractor argued that nevertheless, it was otherwise not liable in the event of injury to a contractor or their employee on the construction site.
When the carpenter brought proceedings against the principal contractor seeking payment of workers compensation, the company defended the claim on the basis that either the carpenter was an independent contractor, or he was the responsibility of the property owners, or he was otherwise working for the licensed builder who introduced him to the work site.
It was up to the Personal Injury Commission to determine whether or not the principal contractor was liable to pay the carpenter’s workers compensation claim.