California Supreme Court Holds Injured Employee of Independent Contractor Cannot Sue the Contractor’s Hirer for Injury Caused by Cal/OSHA Violation
Posted by Kevin Jeffery on Mar 18, 2015
When the employee of an independent contractor suffers an injury on the jobsite, can the employee recover damages from the entity or individual who hired that independent contractor?
This question was raised in an opinion issued by the California Supreme Court last month, Seabright Insurance Company v. US Airways, Inc. The Supreme Court in that case reaffirmed the general rule that the injured employee cannot sue the hirer of the independent contractor, even when the hirer is alleged to have committed safety violations. In making its ruling, however, the Court left open questions on the way this general rule will apply to construction worksites in California.
The Seabright case involved the employee of an independent contractor who was injured while working on an airport luggage conveyor system. The conveyor lacked safety guards required by Cal/OSHA regulations, and the absence of those safety guards contributed to the employee’s injury.
The injured employee sued US Airways, which had hired the independent contractor he worked for. Generally, an employee of an independent contractor who is injured on the jobsite cannot recover damages from the party that hired the independent contractor. However, over the years, the lower courts in California have recognized a host of exceptions to this general rule. The injured employee in Seabright contended the Cal/OSHA violation created one of these exceptions, making US Airways liable for his injury.
The Supreme Court disagreed. It held the general rule – that the injured employee of an independent contractor cannot recover from the party that hired the independent contractor – applied here as well. The Court ruled the existence of a Cal/OSHA violation did not create a special exception. The injured employee of the independent contractor could recover damages within the workers compensation system, but could not hold US Airways liable.
In its opinion, the Court emphasized the fact that none of US Airways’ own employees were exposed to the conveyor and its Cal/OSHA-violating conditions. Since none of US Airways’ employees faced the hazard, the Court reasoned, it had no independent duty to protect others from problems with the conveyor, including employees of its independent contractor.
This aspect of the Court’s opinion leaves the issue unsettled for construction contractors. Construction projects are typically multi-employer worksites. If a Cal/OSHA violation exists on a construction project, the employees of the prime contractor often are exposed to the same hazard as the employees of any subcontractor. It remains to be seen how the California courts would deal with this issue in the context of a multi-employer jobsite.
Will courts hold that because a prime contractor has a duty to maintain a safe workplace for its own employees, it therefore has a duty to all employees on the jobsite – even those of its subcontractors? Or will courts rule that injured employees of a subcontractor can never hold a prime contractor liable on the basis of a Cal/OSHA violation, regardless of whether both parties’ employees face common hazards on the jobsite? The Seabright opinion left those questions open, and California contractors will have to wait for them to be answered in future cases.
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