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California Appeals Court Reinstates Wrongful Death Claim Against Employer

According to a report from Business Insurance, a California appeals court has determined that a trial court judge improperly dismissed a wrongful death claim filed by the widow of a man who was killed on the job. In the case of Rafferty v. Del Monte Foods Inc., the Fresno-based California Fifth District Court of Appeal ruled that summary judgment was inappropriate and that this case was a matter for the jury. 

It is a “Privette Doctrine” case—meaning the property owner (Del Monte) can only be held liable for the wrongful death if the plaintiff can prove certain facts. In this article, our Stockton wrongful death attorneys provide a more detailed overview of the ruling from the California appeals court and explain the Privette Doctrine and third party liability claims. 

Background & Facts: Worker Killed on the Job in California 

David Rafferty was an employee of J.M. Equipment Company, Inc, a heavy equipment company based in Manteca, California. In June of 2016, Mr. Rafferty was repairing an air-powered dock leveler at Del Monte Food Inc. Tragically, a serious accident occurred and he was crushed to death at the worksite. His widow, Amanda Rafferty, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Del Monte Foods Inc. 

Within the wrongful death lawsuit, Ms. Rafferty contends that the fatal workplace accident happened because Del Monte Foods Inc. failed to properly train its employees to operate safe, dangerous equipment. Del Monte Foods Inc. countered that Mr. Rafferty was an employee of J.M. Equipment Company, Inc and that they had no direct influence over how that company carried out its operations. 

The Decision of the Appeals Court: Overturned Wrongful Death Dismissal 

The wrongful death lawsuit was dismissed at the summary judgment stage by a trial court. A judge agreed with the defense raised by Del Monte Foods Inc., finding that the company was not responsible for the way that J.M. Equipment Company, Inc carried out its operations—even though the fatal accident happened on the premises of Del Monte Foods Inc.

The widow appealed the wrongful death dismissal. Upon review, the California Fifth District Court of Appeal agreed with her argument. The appellate court determined that the case had been wrongfully dismissed at the summary judgment stage. It ruled that there were genuine issues of fact that were appropriate questions for a jury. 

Understanding California’s Privette Doctrine 

The wrongful death lawsuit is a Privette Doctrine case. The Privette Doctrine is a significant legal principle in California that shapes the liability landscape for workers injured or killed on the job, particularly those employed by contractors or subcontractors. Established in the 1993 California Supreme Court case (Privette v. Superior Court), the doctrine fundamentally altered the way third-party liability is assigned in workplace accident claims. 

Here is the key thing to know: In Privette, the court ruled that a property owner or general contractor who hires a subcontractor cannot be held liable for the negligence of the subcontractor if the injured worker is an employee of the subcontractor unless the property owner or general contractor did something “affirmative” to cause the accident through an act or omission.  

In this case, Del Monte Foods Inc. argues that the subcontractor (J.M. Equipment Company) is the negligent party. The deceased worker was an employee of that company. For the widow to prevail in a wrongful death claim, she will be required to prove to a jury that Del Monte Foods Inc. did something negligent through act or omission to cause the deadly accident. 

A Third Party May Be Sued for Wrongful Death After a Workplace Fatality in California

A third party may always be sued for its own negligence that contributes to a workplace death in California. Whereas a workers’ comp claim is generally the sole remedy that a deceased worker’s family has against the victim’s own employer, a negligent third party can be sued as part of a wrongful death claim and/or a survival action claim. 

Under California law, wrongful death is defined as the death of a person caused by the wrongful act or neglect of another. If a third party’s negligence caused or contributed to a workplace accident that resulted in a worker’s death, the third party may be held liable for damages such as medical expenses, funeral costs, lost income, and pain and suffering.

Contact Our Stockton, CA Wrongful Death Lawyer Today

At Redkey Gordon Law Corp, our Stockton wrongful death lawyers are compassionate, experienced, and justice-first advocates for grieving families. If you have any questions about a workplace fatality case, we are more than ready to protect your rights. Contact us today to set up a no cost, no obligation case review. From our law office in Stockton, we provide wrongful death representation in San Joaquin County and throughout California’s Central Valley region.