It happens so often. A work site construction accident occurs and the injured worker claims that the negligence of another contractor, not affiliated with the injured worker, caused the personal injuries. The project owner, of course, is often a target of any personal injury litigation. However, the project owner is often insulated from liability under the “Privette” doctrine, see, Privette v. Superior Court (1993) 5 Cal.4th 689, which precludes the application of the peculiar risk doctrine against owners of property who hire independent contractors. But what if the alleged negligent contractor which caused the accident is not itself licensed?
In that regard, the California Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, in Blackwell v. Vasilas (2016) Westlaw 304125 (“Blackwell case”) ruled that the trial court improperly granted Summary Judgment in favor of an investment property owner which hired an unlicensed scaffolding contractor whose scaffolding collapsed and apparently caused severe personal injuries to another contractor.
In the Blackwell case, plaintiff Randall Blackwell suffered personal injuries in June 2013 while performing construction related work at an investment property located in La Mesa, California owned by defendant and property owner Ray Vasilas. Blackwell claimed that he was at the top of a ladder installing rain gutters when he stepped onto scaffolding that another contractor, Enrique Gomez Jimenez ("Gomez"), had erected and that the scaffolding collapsed on Blackwell. Blackwell claimed that the collapse caused Blackwell to fall and that he suffered injuries when he landed on a pile of bricks approximately 10 feet below. Blackwell sued Vasilas for negligence.
The trial court granted Summary Judgment in favor of Vasilas on the basis that Gomez was an independent contractor of Vasilas and that Vasilas was not liable under the peculiar risk doctrine under the facts of that case citing Privette. The Court also granted Summary Judgment under general principles of premises liability on the basis that Vasilas had no actual constructive knowledge that the
scaffolding was dangerous and had no independent duty to warn Blackwell of the allegedly dangerous condition of the scaffolding. In granting Summary Judgment, the trial court cited the lack of evidence in support of Blackwell's claims, i.e. no evidence of negligence by anyone in the assembly or maintenance of the scaffolding, no evidence as to how or why the scaffolding collapsed and no evidence Vasilas had or retained any control over the installation of the rain gutters, among other reasons.
On appeal, Blackwell focused on Gomez’ being an unlicensed contractor, arguing that Gomez was Vasilas employee for purposes of respondeat superior and that Vasilas was, therefore, liable to Blackwell for Gomez' negligence in assembling or maintaining the scaffolding at the job site. In that regard, Blackwell relied on Labor Code §2750.5 which provides for a rebuttable presumption that a worker performing services for which a license is required is an employee of the hirer (owner).
The Court of Appeal agreed with Blackwell and ruled that the trial court erred by not applying Labor Code §2750.5 properly. The Court of Appeal noted that, to establish that Gomez was an independent contractor (a necessary finding based on the issues related to the duty that Vasilas raised in Vasilas' Motion for Summary Judgment), Labor Code §2750.5 required Vasilas to present evidence either that Gomez had a license or that Gomez was not required to be licensed.
The Blackwell case is fairly limited in scope, but important nonetheless. When a property owner retains a contractor which is required to be licensed, an injured employee of another contractor may well, as Blackwell argued, claim that the negligent unlicensed contractor was the employee of the property owner. This is yet another reason why property owners must verify licensure of all contractors working on their properties.
About the Authors: Edward F. Morrison, Jr. is the founding partner and Larry A. Schwartz is Of Counsel to The Morrison Law Group, a professional corporation. Their biographies can be viewed at www.morrisonlawgroup.com.
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