Our office remains open and serving clients during COVID-19. We also remain available 24/7 to answer questions about any potential personal injury claim toll free at 866-966-5240.

Published on:

CA Appeals Court Overturns Plaintiff’s Personal Injury Verdict on Issue of Independent Contractor Status

In California, companies that hire independent contractors to perform work are only liable to the independent contractors’ employees in limited circumstances. In Alaniz v. Sun Pacific Shippers, LP, Cal. Ct. App. Case No. B2920013, the California Court of Appeals reviewed a case in which an employee of an independent contractor was injured while he was working on the premises of a company to determine whether the jury instructions that the court gave were accurate or if they introduced prejudicial error against the defendants.[1]

Factual and procedural background

Jesus Alaniz was an employee of Navarro Trucking, which was contracted with Sun Pacific Shippers to deliver empty orange and apple bins to an orchard owned by Sun Pacific. In Feb. 2012, Alaniz delivered a truckload of bins to the orchard. A man named Roberto Reynosa, who as an employee of a different independent contractor named J. Antonio Rosa Lule, drove a forklift with the responsibility of unloading the bins from Alaniz’s truck.

After Alaniz arrived, Reynosa started to unload bins from the north end of the trailer. Alaniz climbed on top of the trailer to pull bins closer to the north end so that Reynosa could reach them. While he was doing this, he fell from the truck. Reynosa then accidentally crushed Alaniz’s leg with the forklift. Reynosa offered to drive Alaniz to the hospital, but Alaniz refused because he wanted to complete his shift. Four hours later, he went to the hospital. He subsequently underwent surgeries on his shoulder and leg. Alaniz and his wife filed a lawsuit against Reynosa, Lule, and Sun Pacific, alleging negligence by all three parties and premises liability on the part of Sun Pacific.

Alaniz testified that a supervisor at Sun Pacific told him to park his truck on the south side of the road. However, there were several vehicles parked along the road that prevented a forklift from being able to drive from the south side. He testified that Reynosa told him to get up on the trailer and pull the bins to the trailer’s north side so that Reynosa would be able to unload them. Reynosa denied saying these things and said that there was enough room from the south side for a forklift to get through.

The judge gave the jury instructions about general negligence and premises liability. However, he refused to give an instruction to the jury that was proposed by Reynosa and Lule about specific limitations on the liability of companies to the employees of independent contractors. After both sides rested, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Alaniz and his wife a gross verdict of $2,563,910. The jury assigned 40% of the liability to Sun Pacific, 35% to Reynosa and his employer, Lule, 15% to Navarro Trucking, and 10% to Alaniz. Sun Pacific filed motions for a new trial and a judgment notwithstanding the verdict. The court denied both motions. Sun Pacific filed an appeal, alleging several grounds of error in the instructions that were given by the court to the jury.

Issue: Whether the court erred in failing to instruct the jury about the limitations placed on liability of companies that hire independent contractors to their employees?

Sun Pacific filed an appeal based on several grounds. It argued that the court’s failure to give the instruction that was proposed by Lule and Reynosa amounted to prejudicial error. That instruction tracked the rule developed from the cases of Privette v. Superior Court, 5 Cal.4th 689 (1993) and Hooker v. Department of Transportation, 115 Cal.Rptr.2d 853 (2002), which is known as the Hooker/Privette Doctrine.[2, 3] Alaniz argued that Sun Pacific waived its right to assert this argument since it did not propose the instruction at trial.

Rule: Companies that hire independent contractors are only liable to the employees of the independent contractors under theories of premises liability when the hazardous condition was concealed, and the hirer will only be liable to the employees of independent contractors for negligence if its actions affirmatively contributed to the harm.

The Privette/Hooker Doctrine arose out of the California Supreme Court’s decision in Privette and Hooker. Under the Privette decision, a company that hires an independent contractor will only be liable under a theory of premises liability if the hazardous condition that existed on the property was concealed. Under the Hooker decision, a company that hires an independent contractor will only be liable under a theory of negligence if it affirmatively contributed to the accident, injuries, and harm that resulted.

Analysis

The court looked at the jury instructions that were given by the trial court and compared them to the Privette/Hooker Doctrine. In cases in which someone is injured because of the negligence of a company driver, the employer will be vicariously liable for the injuries.[4] However, in this case, the company driver was injured while he was working on the premises of the principle that hired his employer to perform the work. Under the Privette/Hooker Doctrine, juries can only find a defendant liable under a theory of premises liability if the hazardous condition on the property was concealed. The trial court judge instructed the jury that a hirer will be liable if it failed to use reasonable care to maintain reasonably safe conditions on its property. The court found that this instruction was in error and was prejudicial because the jury was not properly instructed about the limitations on premises liability of the hirers to the employees of independent contractors.

The appeals court then looked at the instructions that were given for negligence. The trial court judge instructed the jury that a company is liable if it failed to exercise reasonable care, and its failure was a substantial factor in the accident’s cause. By contrast, under the Hooker decision, a hirer of an independent contractor will be liable to the employee of the independent contractor only if its negligence affirmatively contributed to the accident, injuries, and resulting harm. The court found that the instructions were erroneous, but a jury could find that Sun Pacific affirmatively contributed to the accident’s cause and the resulting harm.

Conclusion

The court found that the instructions that were given amounted to prejudicial error because they were a misstatement of the law. The appeals court dismissed the premises liability count and returned the case to the trial court for a new trial on the negligence claim. It also ordered Sun Pacific to recover its costs on appeal.

Get help from the Steven M. Sweat Injury Lawyers

People who have been seriously injured while they were working for a company that independently contracted with another company to perform work might want to talk to an experienced personal injury attorney. A lawyer at the Steven M. Sweat Personal Injury Lawyers can review what happened and apply the Privette/Hooker Doctrine to determine whether the claim has merits. Contact us today to schedule a free consultation by calling 866.966.5240.

Sources

[1] https://law.justia.com/cases/california/court-of-appeal/2020/b290013.html?utm_source=summary-newsletters&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=2020-02-07-personal-injury-c14e910e7a&utm_content=text-case-title-4

[2] https://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=14363312914258699165&q=Privette+v.+Superior+Court&hl=en&as_sdt=6,26&as_vis=1

[3] https://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=1592809882086817254&q=Hooker+v.+Department+of+Transportation&hl=en&as_sdt=6,26&as_vis=1

[4] https://www.victimslawyer.com/claims-against-company-drivers-in-california.html

Contact Information