Liability for Breakage

Broken stuff happens. Who should hold the bag? Business owners look at a case of broken glassware and discuss the ins and outs of taking responsibility. July 24, 2005

I hired a concrete-saw guy to cut the slab so we could lay in electrical conduit to an island. The vibration from the saw apparently caused the top glass shelf in a display cabinet to give way, crushing some valuable crystal.

On inspection, it was clear that the cabinet itself was defective in two ways: First, 5mm shelf pins were used in 1/4" holes. Second, the glass shelves were cut too small, allowing big gaps (more than 1/4" on each side) between the end of the shelf and the cabinet wall.
What surprises me is that the cabinet shelving hadn't collapsed before. Customer says they have had it for years and was from a high quality furniture manufacturer.

The whole thing was like a mouse trap, and anything could have set it off. So who is at fault here?

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor D:
I'm very sorry, Ma'am, but it's obvious that the display shelf was an accident waiting to happen, and the work we performed would not have caused a properly supported shelf to collapse. (Did any other shelves collapse?) Nor was it incumbent upon us to inspect your shelving before beginning the work, as this was a highly unusual occurrence and could not have been foreseen. Therefore, I suggest you pursue the furniture manufacturer for damages, or call your homeowner's insurance agent and see if your own insurance policy will cover the damage.

From the original questioner:
Thank you. I think you may be right a) that we are not required to inspect their shelving and b) that the homeowner's insurance will cover this damage... assuming that there is real value in what was lost. Personally, I doubt that there was little more than sentimental value, and they would have a very difficult time proving otherwise, but I really don't know.

From contributor X:
If it were I, I'd eat the loss and would not bicker about it. The accident occurred on my watch, therefore the vibrations were created by my doings so I must be responsible. I would chalk it up as another experience learned and let my insurance company handle it. My reputation and goodwill is too important to let go of. I'd keep my customer satisfied.

From contributor J:
Fault isn't the issue, responsibility is. And you are the one who is responsible. Your liability insurance should cover you. If you don't have it, then you should have it.

From the original questioner:
A lot depends on the value of what was broken. For a few hundred bucks, I wouldn't argue the point, but for thousands of dollars I would probably object.

From contributor Z:
I would say it is your fault. The shelves should be emptied by you or the homeowner. Chalk one up to experience. I would never work around full shelves.

From contributor P:
Even though the furniture manufacturer is at fault for the construction of the shelf, it did not fall till your sub started the cutting. It is not an act of God, it's the saw. I would just ask what they want and save my name. They may have you do other work in the house, so you can make back some of what you pay out.

From contributor B:
What about the saw guy? Or are we as cabinetmakers responsible for everyone else? For sure there is no easy answer. What does the homeowner want?

From contributor K:
Sure, the saw operator is responsible. The questioner hired the guy, so it's up to the questioner to backcharge the guy for the damage. It wouldn't be right if you hire someone and when a mistake is made by that person, you all of a sudden remove yourself from the loop.

From contributor J:
The concrete cutter is not responsible to the homeowner. The homeowner did not hire him. You can whine and cry about this all you want, but the bottom line is that the contractor is responsible to the homeowner.

From contributor S:
How about offering to correct the cabinet with the faulty shelf? Get the correct size glass and use the correct shelf pins. Now get the subcontractor to give you a discount on his work and forward that to the client. It will cost you some glass, some pins and some time. The contractor will cover his costs but not make a profit, but at least won't have a total loss. The client gets his cabinet repaired and some money off the total of the work you are doing now. Think that might work?

From the original questioner:
That is an excellent idea!

From contributor K:
What or how much crystal was crushed? It must have been shaking the slab of concrete pretty good to cause a shelf to vibrate apart. What was making so much shaking? A concrete saw with a good blade makes more noise than anything else.

From contributor J:

"...vibration from the saw apparently caused the top glass shelf in a display cabinet to give way..." Apparently?
"...a concrete saw with a good blade makes more noise than anything else..."

Doesn't make sense, does it? If it doesn't make sense, then it usually isn't true. Sounds like somebody bumped into the crystal cabinet.

From contributor W:
I agree. I can't imagine a foundation vibrating so much that the cabinets fell. The windows should have broken too, with that much going on. I'd say your sawyer bumped the cabinet.

From contributor S:
It hardly matters how it happened. Stuff happens. Dealing with it so that everybody walks away to work together another day is the tough part. If something were to go wrong on my job and the client asked who broke it, I would say we broke it. We would deal with it. We would move on. Teamwork is very important on a job and tossing one man under a bus is not good for morale. Sticking by your guy is, and good morale is important to bring the job to a successful close. Besides, not having one person to concentrate his anger on will diffuse the client's rage and he will be more manageable later.

From the original questioner:
Today I asked the customer what the total damage was, so we could take care of it. He said that he had determined that mostly what broke was of sentimental value, but didn't have any significant market value, so forget it.

I also offered to fix the cabinet (per above suggestion) by putting in new shelf pins and new glass shelves, and he accepted the offer of pins, but declined on the new shelves, saying that the pins would be enough to prevent future problems. He is probably right about this. Anyway, problem resolved. Thanks for all your ideas.

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor T:
Your insurance adjuster might have been some help. I have found that they are pretty good at cutting to the quick on things like that, and if introduced to your customer's carrier, those two adjusters will usually come to terms that suit everyone.

Comment from contributor O:
You are the one at fault, regardless of the quality of construction of the cabinet. You were acting as the primary contractor and subbed the work to the contractor using the saw.

In all situations where a sub is used, you must
1. Make sure they are licensed by the proper authority in your state or community.
2. Obtain a certificate of insurance naming you as an additional insured on their general liability insurance carrier.

For now you should turn the claim in to your liability insurance carrier and let them take care of it.

I am an insurance agent.