Missouri Court of Appeals Upholds Acceptance Doctrine to Absolve General Contractor of Premises Liability
In the case of Wilson v. Dura-Seal and Stripe, the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Eastern District held that the “acceptance doctrine” is still valid law in Missouri, and bars liability against a construction contractor for the injury of a third party after the owner of the premises has accepted the work. Citing prior case law, the Court explained the law as follows: “After an owner accepts a structure, the general rule is that a general contractor is not liable to persons with whom he did not contract....In the absence of formal acceptance, constructive or practical acceptance will suffice....Acceptance of the work is attended by the presumption of the owner … made a reasonably careful inspection of the work, knows of its defects, and so accepts the defects and the negligence that caused them as his own.”
In Wilson, plaintiff brought suit against general contractor Dura-Seal for injuries she sustained when she tripped and fell in the gutter area of new asphalt, which had been applied by Dura-Seal at a public school. Wilson claimed that she fell as a result of the height differential between the gutter area and the new asphalt installed by Dura-Seal. Wilson filed a premises liability claim against the owner of the premises who then in turn added Dura-Seal as a third party defendant. Dura-Seal moved for summary judgment, stating that the owner had accepted their work and therefore bore the premises liability due to the acceptance doctrine. The plaintiff argued that there was no evidence that the owner had accepted the work.
It was undisputed that Dura-Seal had not performed any work on the drive lane for at least two months before the plaintiff’s injury and that the owner had paid Dura-Seal for all of the work. It was undisputed that the owner also had exclusive possession and use of the premises rather than the contractor. The Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment and found that the undisputed facts showed that Dura-Seal was neither in control of the premises, nor had the right to control the premises at the time of the plaintiff’s injury.
The Court of Appeals also analyzed the “imminently dangerous” exception to the acceptance doctrine. This exception operates to impose liability on a contractor, even after the owner has accepted the contractor’s work, under the following conditions: “Where the structure was so defectively constructed as to be essentially and imminently dangerous to the safety of others; the defects are so hidden and concealed that a reasonable and careful inspection would not have disclosed them, and these things are known to the defendants but not to those who accepted them.” Here, the undisputed facts showed that the drive lane and the gutter area where Dura-Seal worked were in plain view and therefore was easily discoverable by the owner. The Court thus declined to apply the exception, and ruled in Dura-Seal’s favor, holding that plaintiff had accepted the work when it was completed and payment in full was made.
Missouri construction contractors and their counsel should be well aware of the dimensions of the acceptance doctrine, and the “imminently dangerous” exception, when defending cases of this type.