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When is a California Property Owner Liable for the Injury of an Independent Contractor?

Independent contractors sometimes get a raw deal.  If they are injured on the job, it is often unclear who is responsible, their direct employer or the company that hired their employer.  Everyone seeks to avoid responsibility. A recent California appellate court case provides an illustration of how a court will evaluate when an employer might be held liable for the injury of an independent contractor, particularly where it is unclear who is truly at fault for the injury.  Read on for details about the case, and contact a dedicated Sutter Creek personal injury lawyer if you were injured in a workplace accident or otherwise due to someone else’s negligence while on their property.

Worker injured after equipment malfunction; employer claims it is not liable for independent contractor injuries

The case of Johnson v. Raytheon Company concerned the claims of a maintenance engineer employed by a contractor who provided staff to Raytheon.  Johnson worked the graveyard shift at a Raytheon facility monitoring, among other things, whether the water in the cooling towers was maintained at the appropriate minimum levels.  The building was undergoing a renovation project, and two subcontractors, Power Edge Solutions and Brownco Construction Company, were responsible for installing electronic monitoring equipment and concrete construction work, respectively.

Around 3 a.m. one night, he received a low water level alarm.  He called his supervisor, who told him to do whatever he thought he should do.  Johnson determined to go to the cooling tower directly and check the water level.  Johnson saw a ladder leaning against the cooling tower wall, which had been left by Brownco.  The cooling tower used to have a regular ladder, but it had been removed; this ladder was actually just the top half of an extension ladder, not meant for separate use.  The ground was wet, and there was a sign that said the ladder was not meant for separate use. Johnson did not see the sign because it was late at night.

Johnson climbed the ladder only to find out the water levels were fine; the alarm (installed by Power Edge) had malfunctioned.  While Johnson descended the ladder (left by Brownco), the ladder slid out, causing Johnson to fall and sustain serious injuries.  Johnson sued Raytheon, claiming they were responsible for the hazardous conditions created both by the malfunctioning alarm and by leaving a ladder out that was not meant to be climbed.

On appeal, California’s 2nd District Court of Appeal discussed the general principle that  “a hirer of an independent contractor was not liable for the negligence of the independent contractor.”  There are two exceptions where an employer will be held liable for the injury of an independent contractor:  (1) The employer exercised control over the safety conditions of the work area in a negligent manner that directly contributed to the injury; or (2) the employer owns the property and left a hazardous condition on the property, failed to warn the contractor, and the contractor could not have reasonably discovered the hazard on their own.

The court held that neither of the exceptions to the general rule applied.  In this case, Johnson chose to use an unsafe ladder instead of picking an available safe ladder, and Raytheon did not cause Johnson to use an unsafe ladder; no “affirmative negligence” by Raytheon led to the injury.  Second, Johnson could have “reasonably discovered” that the ladder was a hazard by reading the sign. Again, not Raytheon’s fault. It is worth noting that another court easily could have gone a different direction and held that Raytheon kept hazardous conditions on its property, and that the failed alarm contributed causally to the injury.

If you need legal help after a workplace or premises injury in California, contact the dedicated, knowledgeable, and seasoned Stockton and Sutter Creek premises liability attorneys at Redkey Gordon Law Corp for a no-cost consultation at 209-267-1685.