Case Against the Machine: When Rented Equipment Causes Personal Injury

By Juan Flores

Regardless of what construction trade you work in, it is almost certain that you’ve been in a situation where you, a coworker, or an employee of a different company than your employer have utilized a piece of machinery that was rented from a commercial lessor of construction equipment. For example, you’re a painter or electrician and need a scissor lift to reach overhead work areas, or maybe you’re a laborer and you’re using a vibratory compaction tamper (or plate compactor) to level out the ground after filling an excavation. Construction companies regularly rent equipment from reputable commercial lessors as a convenient and efficient alternative to purchasing it outright.

Whether the reason your company rented a piece of equipment because you were dispatched to a distant jobsite or because the piece of equipment is one that your company does not need to buy because the company doesn’t use it often, you, your coworkers, and other workers on the jobsite expect the piece of equipment to operate safely. A piece of equipment that malfunctions presents a serious hazard to the health and safety to the operator of that equipment and any individual proximate to the area where the equipment malfunctions.

If you are injured as a result of the malfunction or failure of a piece of rented equipment, the lessor (the company that is in the business of renting the equipment) can be held liable in a civil action.

Responsibilities of a Lessor of Construction Equipment

California Civil Code section 1955 sets forth the duties of a lessor of personal property. “Personal property” includes any equipment that your company rents from a commercial lessor of construction equipment. Section 1955 specifically sets forth that a lessor of personal property must deliver it to the lessee (the company or individual renting the equipment from the lessor) to secure “his or her quiet enjoyment thereof against all lawful claimants, put it into a condition fit for the purpose for which he or she leases it, and repair all deteriorations thereof not occasioned by the fault of the lessee and not the natural result of its use.”

What this means is that a commercial lessor is required to do 3 specific things before renting out a piece of equipment:

  • Inspect the equipment for defects;
  • Make them safe for their intended use; and
  • Adequately warn of any known dangers.

If a commercial lessor fails to exercise reasonable care when exercising any of their responsibilities outlined above, they have been negligent and can be held civilly liable. Each of these is a requirement to ensure that the equipment or machinery they are renting will not present a hazard once it arrives at a jobsite.

Inspecting for Defects – Routine Inspections are the Gold Standard

A commercial lessor is required to have an operation and maintenance manuals for all the equipment it rents to the public. Within these manuals, the manufacturers set forth the standard for how often the equipment must be inspected, what needs to be inspected on the equipment, and what to do in the event the equipment fails inspection. Each of these inspections must be documented in order to ensure that a faulty piece of equipment doesn’t inadvertently get rented. Most companies also do a pre-rental inspection – meaning that even if the equipment was recently inspected, it will do another inspection before it is released for rental.

During these inspections, the lessor learns of any issues that may present a hazard if the equipment is rented out and used on a construction site. If there are any defects (i.e. malfunctions, faulty wiring, deactivated alarms, brake failures), the lessor is required to correct these before the machine can be rented. Failure to do so demonstrates a lessor’s failure to exercise reasonable care.

Make Safe for their Intended Use – Must Meet Expectations

Let’s use a scissor lift as an example: various trades use them for a variety of different tasks. Plumbers may use a scissor lift to install overhead piping, sheet metal workers may use them to install overhead unistruts, and painters may use them to paint a ceiling. In each of these examples, all of the workers are using a scissor lift that will allow them to do overhead work that may require them to move along in order to access different work areas. This is the scissor lift’s intended use. Thus, a commercial lessor of a scissor lift must ensure that the scissor lift is safe for this “intended use.” The commercial lessor must make sure that all the controls function properly, the wheels are in good conditions, and that the lift can move up and down smoothly. This requirement goes hand in hand with the requirement for routine inspections: if a commercial lessor is regularly inspecting the equipment, it can ensure that when it leaves the rental yard and arrives on a construction site it will operate safely for the purpose that it was rented for.

Adequately Warn of Any Known Dangers – Keep the Stickers On!

If you’re a construction worker, you’re likely familiar with the dangers of certain equipment you use regularly. Nevertheless, a commercial lessor must always warn of any hazards it knows about before renting a piece of equipment. Although a commercial lessor would violate its responsibilities if they rent a piece of equipment that doesn’t operate safely, if it does it must inform the individual or company renting the piece of equipment about any dangers it is aware of. For example, if the commercial lessor is renting an older piece of equipment that it knows has some mechanical issues it must provide that information if it knows the mechanical issue presents a danger.

Furthermore, you are likely familiar with the assortment of decals in various parts of a piece of construction equipment (the ones with the exclamation points or that say “DANGER” in bright red letters). These are warnings that a commercial lessor is required to place and keep on their equipment as part of their responsibility to warn of known dangers. Additionally, a lessor is generally required to provide an operators manual that includes a more detailed and thorough description of any and all known dangers.

At Arns Davis Law, we know that our clients regularly encounter rented construction equipment – either because our clients are directly operating it or because another worker on a jobsite is. When you suffer an injury at work due to the failure or malfunction of a piece of rented construction equipment, you may have a right to bring an action against the lessor of that equipment if they did not use reasonable care in exercising their responsibilities outlined above.

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