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Sanna v. National Sponge Co.

Decided: March 12, 1986.


On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Mercer County.

King, Simpson and Scalera. The opinion of the court was delivered by King, P.J.A.D.


In this case the defendant, a sponge-rubber carpet cushion manufacturer, hired plaintiff's employer, John Sincak & Company (JSC), an independent contractor, to insulate a room in its factory in Trenton. While doing this work, plaintiff was injured when a makeshift scaffold collapsed. At the end of the plaintiff's case, the judge granted a judgment of involuntary dismissal. R. 4:37-2(b). We conclude that plaintiff presented a case for the jury and reverse.

For about five years before this accident on January 8, 1981, defendant had employed JSC as an outside, independent contractor to remodel its factory. During those years, plaintiff occasionally worked for JSC at defendant's factory running jackhammers, pouring, pushing and raking concrete, and assisting tradesmen such as carpenters and masons as general laborers. When JSC would work at defendant's factory, defendant would lend JSC the necessary equipment, if it was available.

Several days before this accident a sprinkler system in the factory had frozen because of poor insulation, flooding the maintenance department and environs. This emergency problem needed prompt correction. Thus, defendant and JSC entered into an oral contract to install new insulation.

Early in the morning of January 8 plaintiff was told by his boss to report to the coloring room at defendant's factory. When plaintiff arrived at 8 a.m. he met a co-worker who was already installing insulation on the walls of the coloring room.

Plaintiff set to work and by 10 a.m. they started to insulate the ceiling of the coloring room. An elevated area in the coloring room described as a "flat deck" enabled plaintiff and his co-worker to reach the ceiling. But at about noon, plaintiff and his co-worker reached a part of the ceiling not accessible from this elevated area.

To continue their ability to reach the ceiling, plaintiff and his co-worker arranged a scaffold. This scaffold was constructed from an aluminum ladder (dismantled in two parts), supplied by JSC, and a forklift and some planks supplied by defendant. Plaintiff described the scaffold arrangements as follows.

Well, we placed [the forklift] in the middle of the room . . . to catch the tank and two ladders we put one ladder over one side of the wall, and we put a plank from that tank to the ladder, and then we used another ladder with a plank and another section with another plank so we had a good solid platform to work with, with the forklift in the middle.

This arrangement "worked out real fine." After plaintiff worked with this scaffold arrangement for about an hour, an employee of defendant removed the borrowed forklift because he needed it immediately for another task. Plaintiff then told an employee of defendant that he needed another ladder to finish the job. Defendant's employee loaned plaintiff a wooden ladder which plaintiff used in place of the forklift in the scaffold arrangement. This ladder-scaffold arrangement was "shaky" and not as secure as the forklift setup.

About an hour after plaintiff began working upon the new scaffolding arrangement, it collapsed causing him to fall and severely injure his left arm. He said that "all of a sudden it came down and hit the floor and I just laid there and moaned." Plaintiff did not know the precise cause of the accident. He surmised that grease on the aluminum ladder owned by JSC could have caused it to give way from the wall. There was also some evidence that the aluminum ladder supplied by JSC may have had a broken foot after the accident. Apparently, there was nothing structurally wrong with the defendant's wooden ladder after the accident.

Plaintiff also said that the elevated area or "flat deck" upon which they had been working before was greasy. While he and his co-worker were working on this deck, they tracked grease from it onto the concrete floor upon which the jerry-built scaffold was erected.

Glen Hartman, plaintiff's co-worker, testified in the presentation of the plaintiff's case. He said that for one or two days before the accident he had been installing insulation in the coloring room where plaintiff fell. He said that the floor of the room at this time was slippery in some spots and had a slime on it.

George Lane, the defendant's employee relations manager, also testified in the plaintiff's case. The defendant was completely familiar with JSC's ongoing practice of borrowing equipment and tools to perform any given job on defendant's premises. There was no conventional scaffolding available on the premises that JSC could borrow. Lane testified to an investigative report that he prepared following the incident. The report was the subject of this testimony.

Q [By Plaintiff's Attorney]: No, I interrupted you, but I just wanted to make sure that these were your observations. If you'd continue on, you say I observed --

A: "I observed the following unsafe conditions: One, the contractor had used two ladders to make a scaffolding from. Two, one of the ladders had been place against a wall with a board running from the soda bicarbonate tank to the ladder with no substantial means of holding the board. See pictures taken immediately after the incident."

Q: Now, those are the pictures were have?

A: That's correct.

Q. All right. Go ...

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