As many are aware, in Privette v. Superior Court (1993) 5 Cal.4ᵗʰ 869, the California
Supreme Court adopted a principle of non-liability holding that a person who hires an independent
contractor to do dangerous work is not liable when an employee of the independent contractor
suffers a work-related injury. Stated differently, the Courts have held that, "[g]enerally, when
employees of independent contractors are injured in the workplace, they cannot sue the
party that hired the contractor to do the work." See, SeaBright Insurance Co. v. US
Airways, Inc. (2011) 52 Cal.4ᵗʰ 590. The rule of non- liability was adopted essentially
for two reasons. First, workers compensation insurance usually provides exclusive remedy for
employees who are injured on the job. Second, by hiring an independent contractor, the theory
is the hirer implicitly delegates to the contractor any tort law duty owed to the
One issue that has arisen is whether the Privette Doctrine applies in a commercial landlord
situation. In the case of Laico v. Chevron USA, Inc. (2004) 123 Cal.App.4ᵗʰ 649, a Court of Appeal
ruled that an employee of an industrial contractor failed to show any
basis for finding the property owner liable for his injuries.
In a case involving significant damages, this issue came up in the matter of Zuniga
v. Che ry Avenue Auction, Inc. (2021) WL972881 ("Zuniga case"). The Zuniga case involved
the operation of an outdoor swap meet in Fresno. Cherry Avenue Auction, Inc. had operated that
outdoor swap meet on the same site in Fresno for over 40 years. W.D. & M.S. Mitchell Family
Limited Partnership owned the land on which the swap meet operated. Kinsman Enterprises,
LLC managed that property (those entities are herein referred to as the “Cherry Avenue
parties”). A couple, plaintiff Araceli Zuniga and her husband Jose Flores, rented two vendor
spaces at the Fresno swap meet. When they were setting up their booth in their spaces, a 28 foot
metal pole holding their advertising banner touched an overhead owerline. Both were electrocuted.
Mr. Flores died and Ms. Zuniga
was severely injured.
Ms. Zuniga filed suit against the Cherry Avenue parties. The jury found the Cherry
Avenue parties were 77.5% at fault and that Plaintiff's damages totaled $12,250,000. On appeal,
the Cherry Avenue parties contended they had no duty of care to the Plaintiff because
the danger presented by the overhead powerline was open and obvious and the Privette Doctrine
should be extended to protect them from liability.
The Cherry Avenue parties appealed.