Damage caused by an equipment rental company on a worksite: who is liable?

In a ruling handed down on April 23, the French Supreme Court ruled that a company cannot be held liable for damage caused by an equipment lessor in the absence of a subcontracting relationship between them. In this case, a site crane damaged the wall of a building located at the entrance to a construction site. Who is liable for the damage caused? Answers from the highest court in the land.

The facts

In this case, Ajne was responsible for the construction of a block of flats, and had entrusted the structural work to Ademaj, which had hired a crane from a specialist company to carry out the work. During an evacuation maneuver, the crane collided with the wall of a building at the entrance to the site.

Noting that the indemnity paid by the insurer would not cover the cost of the reconstruction work, the company in charge of the construction sued Ademaj for compensation for its loss.

Initially, the lower courts rejected this claim, holding that although the damage had been caused by the company that supplied the crane, it had acted under a rental contract, in the absence of any subcontracting relationship. In this context, the client cannot hold the co-contractor liable.

No subcontracting relationship

Dissatisfied with the initial ruling, Ajne appealed to the French Supreme Court. The contracting authority asserts the principle that the contractor is liable for damage caused by service providers it calls in to work on the site for the purposes of carrying out its contract, whatever the legal status of these interventions. He also points out that the builder is bound by an obligation of result towards the client, requiring him to deliver a compliant structure.

Despite these factors, in a decision handed down on April 13, 2023, the French Supreme Court rejected the appeal lodged by Ajne, approving the reasoning of the appeal judges. The high court noted that the rental contract concerned the provision of a crane, including transport, assembly and dismantling services. As the building was damaged during the removal of the crane, Ademaj was not at fault in carrying out the work entrusted to it. Moreover, in the absence of a subcontracting relationship with the equipment rental company, Ademaj is not liable for the damage observed. Its contractual liability cannot therefore be accepted, the Court emphasized.

In the case of a subcontracting agreement, the main contractor contracted by the customer to carry out the work is contractually liable to the customer for any faults committed by his subcontractors during the execution of the work entrusted to them. In this case, it is advisable to make the conclusion of the subcontract conditional on each subcontractor taking out ten-year insurance cover.