Independent contractors regularly perform services at commercial and residential jobsites. However, what happens when the independent contractor is injured on the job? Who is liable? When can a hiring party, such as general contractor or homeowner, be held liable for an independent contractor's injury? These questions continue to make their way through the California courts.
Current State of Law in California
Generally, an independent contractor cannot sue the hiring party to recover for injuries that were compensable under worker's compensation. Privette v. Superior Court (1993) 5 Cal. 4th 689. However, there are exceptions to this rule. A hiring party can be held liable when it exercises control over safety conditions that affirmatively contribute to the independent contractor's injuries. Hooker v. Department of Transportation (2002) 27 Cal. 4th 198, 202. A hiring party can also be held liable for providing unsafe equipment or failing to protect a worker from concealed hazards. McKown v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. (2002) 27 Cal. 4th 219, 225; Kinsman v. Unocal Corp. (2005) 37 Cal. 4th 659. These exceptions provide some hope for surviving spouses, children and dependents who would otherwise be limited to $250,000-$320,000 in workers compensation death benefits. (https://www.dir.ca.gov/dwc/WorkersCompensationBenefits.htm)
Recent Appellate Decision Finding Hiring Party Not Liable
Recently, a California appellate court determined that a forklift rental company was not liable for the death of an independent contractor, who was hired to change tires on forklift. Horne v. Ahern Rentals, Inc. (2nd Dist. 2020) B299605. In this case, the plaintiffs argued that the hiring party affirmatively contributed to the harm because there were safety issues concerning an unlevel working surface and because the forklift manufacturer's safety instructions were not followed. However, the independent contractor did not request the hiring party make any changes before commencing work. Instead, the hiring party relied upon the independent contractor's knowledge and skill, and it did not direct or interfere with the way the work was being performed. In other words, the hiring party did not exercise control over the independent contractor in a manner necessary to impose liability.
Questions Pending Before the California Supreme Court
Currently, there are two similar cases pending before the California Supreme Court. In the first case, a professional window washer filed a premises liability action against a homeowner after he slipped on loose gravel and fell off the roof. In this case, the roofer was admittedly aware of the hazard. The question before the Court is whether the concealed hazardous condition exception applies to known hazards that cannot be remedied through reasonable safety measures. Gonzalez v. Mathis (S247677) (2nd Dist. 2018) 20 Cal.App.5th 257.
In the second case, a worker was severely burned while working on electrical equipment controlled by the hiring company. Not all of the electrical equipment had been de-energized on worksite. The independent contractor was warned as to which equipment still posed a danger. However, the worksite was full of electrical equipment and the energized equipment was not clearly marked leading to claims that greater safety precautions should have been taken. The question before the Court is whether failure to take greater safety precautions is an affirmative contribution. Sandoval v. Qualcomm Inc., (S252796) (4th Dist. 2018) 28 Cal.App.5th 381.
We will have to wait for California's highest court to answer the above questions. These answers will be instructive and may help clarify the duties owed to independent contractors. However, it is unlikely that the answers will settle the law in this area because these cases are fact specific and because worker's compensation benefits are often completely insufficient.
If you are an independent contractor or family member of an independent contractor who was harmed while on the job and you have questions, please contact me for a free consultation.