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Homeowners not liable for injuries to independent contractors

In Whitten v. Sybron Chemicals, Inc., the defendant Sybron hired the plaintiff’s employer to perform maintenance on chemical manufacturing tanks. The plaintiff, a foreman, was injured in a fall from a ladder while repairing a piece of machinery inside one of defendant’s sludge tanks. He claimed the fall was caused by sludge the defendant’s employees failed to clean. However, he admitted he knew of the slippery condition. The court held that since the plaintiff worked for an independent contractor, and since the presence of the sludge was a known and visible hazard that was incidental to the very work the plaintiff was to perform, the defendant had no duty to ensure the plaintiff’s safety. This holding falls in step with a line of New Jersey case law that abrogates the general rule that landowners have a nondelegable duty to ensure the safety of all who enter onto the premises. It thus becomes important upon receiving notice of an accident to thoroughly investigate precisely how the injury occurred and under what circumstances.

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