The California Court of Appeal recently affirmed a judgment in favor of the defendants in a lawsuit following a fatal accident. The appellate court found that the plaintiffs had not met their burden of showing an element of their negligence claim, the breach of a duty of care, and it affirmed the lower court’s judgment in favor of the defendants.
Roque Valdez worked on weekends as a landscaper and tree trimmer and was unlicensed. Over about 20 years, he trimmed many trees, including large trees. After a tree branch fell from a tall tree on the defendants’ property, Mr. Valdez’s associate, Luis Contreras, offered a business card to the defendants and told them that Mr. Valdez and he had been trimming trees for 10 years. Before beginning their work, Mr. Valdez and Mr. Contreras were aware that the tree limbs were positioned near power lines. They discussed the danger, with the electrical lines being open, obvious, and visible. Mr. Contreras died from electrocution when he was cutting a tree limb that came into contact with a power line. The coroner’s laboratory analysis of blood samples showed his blood alcohol level was between 0.20 and 0.26 percent. The level of intoxication opined by a forensic toxicologist retained by the defendants was 0.21, about three times the California legal limit for driving.
The plaintiffs included evidence from a board certified master arborist, who offered his opinion that a licensed arborist should have been hired, due to the tree’s size and species. He contended that by not hiring a certified arborist, the defendants violated the standards for tree care by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).
Mr. Valdez’s widow and five children brought a complaint for negligence and wrongful death, alleging that the defendants hired Mr. Valdez to trim the tree, aware that he was an unlicensed contractor. The plaintiffs also alleged that the defendants instructed Mr. Valdez how he should cut the tree, and their instructions were inconsistent with industry standards. The complaint alleged that the defendants failed to warn about the danger posed by the electrical wires.
The defendants then moved for summary judgment on the grounds that they did not breach any duty of care, and their conduct was not the cause-in-fact of Mr. Valdez’s death. The trial court granted the motion for summary judgment, and the plaintiffs appealed.
The appellate court stated that Mr. Valdez’s work cutting the trees required a contractor’s license. When an unlicensed contractor suffers injuries while working, different employment relationships may arise regarding the employer’s liability for workers’ compensation or tort damages. The court here stated that it can be assumed Mr. Valdez’s heir can bring a lawsuit for ordinary negligence.
Here, the negligence claim required the plaintiff to show that the defendants breached a duty of care owed to the victim and proximately caused his injury. The court stated that in this case, a homeowner may not be liable to an employee for failing to warn about an openly visible high voltage power line, as opposed to a concealed, pre-existing hazardous condition.
The court turned to the defendants’ assertion that they acted reasonably and that they had not breached a duty of care. The appellate court restated the fact that the power lines were obvious, open, and visible. Additionally, Mr. Valdez and Mr. Contreras had discussed the danger posed by the power lines. The court noted that the defendants had not supplied equipment, nor did they supervise the victim’s job. The accident took place when Mr. Valdez was intoxicated to a level that would impair his judgment and reactions. This evidence met the defendant’s burden of showing that the breach of a common law duty of care could not be proven. The plaintiffs then needed to show a triable issue of material fact.
Regarding the plaintiffs’ showing, the court stated that the defendants were required to act reasonably and to take the “special precautions” set forth in ANSI guidelines. Here, the court stated that ANSI guidelines are not mandatory. They also explained that the defendants were not in the tree trimming industry, and it would have been unreasonable to demand that the defendants conduct themselves according to non-mandatory guidelines. The court also compared ANSI guidelines to OSHA standards of care and stated that it would violate basic notions of fairness to expect homeowners to discover the existence of ANSI before hiring a tree-trimmer.
The court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the defendants breached a duty of care simply by hiring Mr. Valdez. Mr. Contreras and Mr. Valdez told the defendants that they had been tree-trimming for 10 years. Furthermore, there was no evidence of the exact cause of the accident, and no evidence had been provided that the defendants put Mr. Valdez in contact with the electrical lines.
The court affirmed the judgment of the lower court in favor of the defendants.
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