Developers given wider immunity from worker suits

July 21, 1995|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Sun Staff Writer

Maryland's highest court yesterday narrowed the circumstances when injured employees of subcontractors can sue housing developers.

The court, in a 6-0 ruling, said developers qualify for immunity under the state's Workers' Compensation Act if they have sold at least one of the lots in a development before the subcontractor was hired.

Until yesterday, under a 1976 court ruling, workers could sue the developer if the particular house they were working on hadn't been sold before the subcontractor was hired.

The Workers' Compensation Act generally prevents injured workers from suing their employers and allows them to seek monetary claims from a state fund financed by employer contributions.

Yesterday, the court barred a suit by the parents of Brian Para, who was killed at a Richards Group construction site in Crofton, ruling that at the time of the injury or death, a developer needs only to have sold at least one of the houses being built by the subcontractor to qualify for the act's protection.

Housing industry lawyers said the ruling applies to both injuries and accidental deaths.

It is expected to curb litigation and lower insurance costs for many of Maryland's largest homebuilders, who frequently hire subcontractors to build hundreds of houses before they find buyers, they said.

"It's going to be a wonderful tool for removing cases from court dockets all over Maryland," said Kevin J. McCarthy, the Lanham lawyer who represented the Richards Group.

But the Paras' lawyer said the decision shuts off an avenue of compensation for construction workers injured on the job and their families, who fail to qualify under a complicated set of

criteria for workers' compensation, according to the lawyer for the Paras.

"Now, unfortunately, all a smart developer has to do is pre-sell off one lot and get instant immunity from tort claims," said Gilbert H. Robinette. "My sympathies are with the workers in the construction industry and their families."

The ruling is for the workers' protection, as well as the developers', the court said.

"To hold otherwise might leave some employees of subcontractors with the unfortunate situation of finding themselves unable to receive workers compensation simply because they were not 'lucky' enough to have been injured on one of the lots which had already been sold to a third party," Judge Howard S. Chasanow wrote in a 21-page decision.

The ruling upheld an April 13, 1994, decision by Anne Arundel Circuit Judge Robert H. Heller Jr. dismissing a wrongful death suit filed against the Richards Group, a Washington homebuilder, by the parents of 21-year-old Brian Para.

Mr. Para was killed March 19, 1991, when a trench at a housing development collapsed on him.

The subcontractor who hired Mr. Para, Ronald Razzano, 41, of Bowie, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter Jan. 12, 1993, by Anne Arundel Circuit Judge Raymond G. Thieme. The accident also prompted Mr. Para's parents to lobby successfully for legislation aimed at tightening state laws regarding safety at construction sites.

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