Property Owners Can Delegate Responsibility of Safety to the Independent Contractors

April 5, 2022

The Privette doctrine was originally set forth in Privette v. Superior Court (“Privette”) in 1993. The rule set forth in this case provided that in most cases it was prohibited for independent contractors or its workers from suing the hirer for workplace injuries. However, in 2021, Gonzalez v Mathis (“Gonzalez”) stabilized the law in California that governs a hirers’ limited liability to independent contractors. In Gonzalez, a hirer of an independent contractor is typically not liable for injuries sustained by an independent contractor or its workers while on the job. As such, businesses and property owners should be aware of this new decision as they hire independent contractors for work in their premises.

Privette v. Superior Court

Under Privette, the Supreme Court of California held that a landowner who hires an independent contractor and hires this contractor to perform inherently dangerous work, may not be held liable to an employee of the independent contractor who is injured as a result of the independent contractor’s negligence. [1] This has been the law until 2021. 

Gonzalez v Mathis

Gonzalez stabilized the law set forth in Privette. In Gonzalez, a landowner, Mathis, hired an independent contractor, Gonzalez, who climbed on a roof to clean a skylight that was difficult to access. Gonzalez walked on a narrow path on the roof and slipped and fell to the ground and sustained serious injuries. Gonzalez alleged the fall was because of dangerous conditions on the roof. Gonzalez was aware of the conditions before the accident. The trial court granted the motion for summary judgment for Mathis, stating Mathis did not owe any duty to Gonzalez according to the Privette Doctrine. The Court of Appeal reversed the trial court ruling, stating a landowner may be liable to an independent contractor or its workers from injuries resulting from known hazards creating a third exception to the Privette Doctrine [2]. The California Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeal ruling rejecting this third exception to the Privette Doctrine and upheld the trial court’s ruling. The California Supreme Court stated that the hirer delegates to the independent contractor presumptively the power to manage the manner the work to be performed and thus the contractor assumes responsibility of ensuring the workplace is safe and is performed safely. If an independent contractor becomes aware of a hazardous condition on the premises, the property owner has delegated their responsibility of safety to the independent contractor properly. [2]

Additionally, even though Gonzalez did not have workers compensation coverage the analysis does not change. Independent contractors can typically factor in added costs of safety precautions and can also purchase workers compensation on their own.

The decision in Gonzalez preserves the California law controlling a hirers’ limited liability to independent contractors and will help property owners assess workplace safety in the future.

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