The California Supreme Court issued two decisions this month strengthening the Privette doctrine defense, which shields landowners, developers and general contractors from liability for construction injuries suffered by employees of contractors working onsite. The cases are Sandoval v. Qualcomm, and Gonzalez v. Mathis.
What is the Privette Doctrine?
The Privette doctrine stands for the proposition that the landowner/developer/general contractor (“Hirer”) of contractors on a construction project delegates responsibility for workplace safety to the contractors. Therefore, absent two narrow exceptions, the Hirer cannot be held liable for on-the-job injuries sustained by the contractors’ workers or employees. These workers are limited to recovery under the worker’s compensation system.
Why is this doctrine important to our landowner/developer/general contractor clients?
Injured construction-site workers are encouraged by their lawyers to sue all potentially liable third parties, in addition to recovering through their employer’s worker’s compensation insurance. Ergo, these plaintiffs target the Hirer, in hopes of recovering a windfall. The Privette doctrine is invaluable to defending our Hirer clients by blocking these claims and clearly establishing that the Hirer has no liability, nor any monetary exposure, for injured workers of contractors, whose working conditions the Hirer rarely controls.
How do the new cases affect existing law?
The Sandoval v. Qualcomm decision address the first exception, known as the Hooker exception, which states that a Hirer may be liable if it: (1) retained control over the independent contractors’ work, and (2) negligently exercised that control in a manner that affirmatively contributed to the worker’s injury. The Sandoval Court offered much needed clarification that the Hirer’s conduct amounting to “affirmative contribution” must be more than just a “substantial factor.” This decision is a victory for Hirers, and makes it more difficult for an injured worker to circumvent Privette’s protections by raising the bar on what conduct amounts to “affirmative contribution” to an injury.
The second case, Gonzalez v. Mathis, tackles the second, or Kinsman exception to the Privette doctrine. Under Kinsman, the Hirer may be liable if it knew, or should have known, of a concealed hazard on the property and failed to warn the contractor of the hazard. For the first time, the Gonzalez court analyzed the issue of hirer liability in the face of a jointly known hazard on the premises. Specifically, the Court held that a Hirer cannot be liable for injuries to a contractor’s worker resulting from a known hazard, if there were no reasonable safety precautions the contractor could have adopted to avoid or minimize the hazard. The presumptive delegation to the contractor of the duty to provide for workplace safety encompasses a duty to determine whether the work can be performed safely, despite a known hazard onsite. The onus is on the contractors to mitigate known hazards; the duty is not on the Hirer. To hold otherwise would create a broad third exception to Privette that would expose Hirers to greater liability than non-hirers, and would subsume the Hooker exception, essentially holding Hirers liable for injuries from known hazards, even if the Hirer did not retain control and affirmatively contribute to the injuries.