California Court Reverses Summary Judgment in Favor of Defendant Due to Failure to Meet Burden of Proof Regarding Negligence Claim

In a recent case before the California Court of Appeal, the court addressed the duty owed by a property owner to individuals on their premises.  Generally, a property owner owes a duty to avoid posing foreseeable dangers to those lawfully on their property. One exception is if the property owner had no control over the tortfeasor, such as if they are an independent contractor.  The court in this case held that to demonstrate an individual is an independent contractor, both common law and statutory requirements must be met.

Randall Blackwell, the plaintiff in this personal injury lawsuit, alleged he was at the top of a ladder installing rain gutters at a property owned by defendant Ray Vasilas when he stepped onto a scaffolding that collapsed.  Mr. Blackwell fell 10 feet onto a pile of bricks, injuring himself.

Mr. Blackwell sued Mr. Vasilas for general negligence.  Mr. Vasilas had hired a separate contractor to install the scaffolding. Mr. Vasilas then moved for summary judgment on the basis that he owed no duty to Mr. Blackwell.  He argued that the peculiar risk doctrine did not apply, and he therefore could not be held liable for tort damages when a contractor’s negligence caused injuries to another.  He also claimed that since he had no actual or constructive knowledge that the scaffolding was dangerous, he could not be liable under premises liability law. The trial court granted Mr. Vasilas’ motion for summary judgment.

In a summary judgment motion, the defendant is entitled to judgment when the court determines there is no triable issue as to any material fact. If an element of the cause of action cannot be established, it has no merit. In this case, a legal duty to use due care is an element of a negligence action.

The appellate court held that the trial court erred by not applying Labor Code section 2750.5 properly.  In order for Mr. Vasilas to establish that Mr. Gomez was an independent contractor, Mr. Vasilas was required to demonstrate that Mr. Gomez had a license or was not required to be licensed.

First, it must be determined whether the alleged tortfeasor is an independent contractor or whether he was a hired employee.  Mr. Vasilas cannot be held liable for negligence by an independent contractor.  Courts look to factors such as the right to control the manner and means of the work.  Here, Mr. Vasilas presented evidence that he hired Mr. Gomez through an oral agreement, that he did not supervise or participate in the assembly of the scaffolding, and that the scaffolding was owned by Mr. Gomez and brought to the job site. The appellate court held that this evidence showed that under the common law, Mr. Gomez was an independent contractor.

But the Labor Code makes clear the general tort standard for independent contractor status.  Here, Mr. Vasilas had an additional evidentiary burden.  He did not attempt to meet this burden.

Section 2750.5 states that there is a rebuttable presumption holding that a worker performing services for an individual required to obtain a license is not an independent contractor, but instead an employee.  Factors that show proof of independent contractor status include the right to control the manner of the work, as well as focusing on the end result and not the way it is performed. The court in this case also stated that sufficient evidence must show that the independent contractor was in fact licensed.

The public policy behind the presumption and burden of proof imposes liability on the party benefiting from the labor.  In that position, they can spread risk through securing insurance and hiring workers who have shown competence and have obtained a contractor’s license.

While the common law sets forth factors regarding employment status, statutory law also requires evidence showing either a contractor’s license or evidence that it is inapplicable.  The court held that the Labor Code applies in tort cases involving negligence.

The court stated that Mr. Vasilas did not meet his initial burden of persuasion. He was required to show that one or more elements of the negligence claim cannot be established.  To show that Mr. Gomez was an independent contractor, in addition to showing the factors determining independent contractor status, Mr. Vasilas was required to show that Mr. Gomez was licensed.  Since he did not offer evidence regarding Mr. Gomez’ license, or evidence that those services did not require a license, Mr. Vasilas did not meet his burden of showing Mr. Gomez’ status as an independent contractor.

In conclusion, the appellate court held the lower court erred in granting Mr. Vasilas’ motion for summary judgment.

If you have been injured in a slip and fall situation or any other premises liability type of incident in Southern California, the skilled premises liability attorneys at Sharifi Firm can provide guidance and representation. We offer a no-obligation consultation and can be reached by calling 1-866-422-7222.

More Blog Posts:

California Court Holds Employer as Premises Owner Did Not Owe Duty to Protect Family Member from Secondary Exposure to Asbestos, Southern California Injury Blog, December 8, 2015

California Court of Appeals Upholds Evidentiary Ruling in Grocery Store Slip & Fall Case, Southern California Injury Blog, June 17, 2015

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