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CA Supreme Court Rules on Electrical Burn Injury Work Accident

electrical-burn-injury-lawyersWhen employees of contractors are injured while performing work on behalf of a third party, they generally cannot hold the company that hired the contractors liable for their injuries. However, exceptions exist when the hirer retains control over the safety conditions of the work environment, fails to disclose a hidden, dangerous condition, or affirmatively contributes to the workers’ injuries. In Sandoval v. Qualcomm Inc., Cal. S. Ct., No. S252796 (2021), the California Supreme Court considered whether a hirer has a tort duty to inform individual employees of an independent contractor about hidden safety hazards in the workplace.[1]

Factual and procedural background

Martin Sandoval was an electrical parts specialist who worked for ROS Electrical Supply & Equipment. He was hired by Transpower Testing, Inc. to help Transpower’s president, Frank Sharghi, a licensed electrical engineer, to locate some busbars in the main cogen circuit at Qualcommm Inc.’s campus. Qualcomm had hired Transpower Testing to upgrade the company’s turbines in 2013. Sharghi had previously worked on Qualcomm’s switchgear for more than 20 years.

Qualcomm approved work by Transpower Testing, Inc. with the scope including an inspection of the main cogen circuit but did not authorize Transpower to inspect any other circuits. On the day of the inspection, Transpower’s workers, including Sandoval, first attended a safety meeting led by Mark Beckelman, Qualcomm’s plant operator. During this meeting, Beckelman informed Sharghi and his workers that some of the circuits would remain live. All of the workers from both Qualcomm and Transpower then went to the switchgear room, where Beckelman and two other Qualcomm employees performed a power-down process to shut down the live circuits to the main cogen circuit. All of the Qualcomm employees were wearing arc protection suits and directed Transpower’s workers to remain back since only one of them was also wearing an arc protection suit.

The Qualcomm employees performed a lockout/tagout procedure on each of the breakers feeding into the main cogen circuit. For the main cogen circuit, the Qualcomm employees removed the front cover and took out the breaker, setting it on the floor to allow Transpower to have access to the busbars. Sharghi watched this entire process to make sure the Qualcomm employees didn’t miss any steps. Before Qualcomm’s employees left the switchgear room, Beckelman confirmed that Sharghi knew which circuits were dead and which remained live and that he was satisfied with Qualcomm’s power-down process. Sandoval did not hear this exchange.

Sharghi asked George Guadana, the only TransPower employee who was wearing an arc protection suit, to perform a grounding process and check with TransPower’s voltmeter that the breakers on the main cogen circuit were dead. He also bled the residual energy and attached some grounding cables. Sharghi also instructed Guadana to remove the protective cover from an adjacent circuit cubicle, which Guadana did. Sharghi knew that the adjacent circuit was still live. He testified that he asked Guadana to remove the adjacent cover so that Sharghi could take photos for a previous, unrelated inspection.
He did not inform anyone that removing the adjacent cover exposed anyone to a live circuit.

The TransPower team then started their inspection. Sandoval was having difficulty determining the size of some of the busbars by inspecting them from the front, so he walked around to the back to get a better look. He was carrying a metal measuring tape and did not have an arc protection suit on. The metal tape caused the live, open circuit to arc, causing an electrical fire that burned more than 30% of Sandoval’s bodily surfaces. Guadana and another employee were able to smother out the flames. Beckelman heard the bang of the arc flash and ran into the room, yelling, “Why was it live?”

Sandoval spent more than a month in the hospital with third-degree burns and had to undergo multiple skin graft surgeries. His third-degree burns covered his arms, torso, neck, and face. He also suffered second-degree burns, pneumonia, discomfort, full use of his left arm, and several infections. He filed a lawsuit against TransPower, ROS Electrical Supply, and Qualcomm, alleging negligence and premises liability.

Qualcomm filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that as the hirer of TranPower, it delegated the responsibility for safety to TransPower and did not owe a tort duty to Sandoval. However, the court found that a triable issue of fact existed about whether Qualcomm had affirmatively contributed to Sandoval’s accident and injuries and denied the summary judgment motion. Qualcomm also objected to a jury instruction about the elements for a claim under Hooker v. Dept. of Transportation, 27 Cal.4th 198 (2002), arguing that the pattern instruction did not adequately explain affirmative contribution.[2] However, the court denied Qualcomm’s objection. Sandoval withdrew his premises liability claim after the court noted that Qualcomm did not have to disclose the live circuits to Sandoval personally.

The jury returned a verdict against Qualcomm, finding that the company affirmatively contributed to Sandoval’s injuries through its negligence and that it had retained control over the safety of the working environment. The jury returned a jury verdict of more than $1 million in past and future economic losses and $6 million in noneconomic losses. It apportioned the verdict between the defendants, finding that Qualcomm was 46% at fault, TransPower was 45% at fault, and Sandoval was 9% at fault.

Qualcomm filed a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and a motion for a new trial, arguing that no triable issue existed about affirmative contribution. The court denied Qualcomm’s motion, and the company filed an appeal. The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s decision, and Qualcomm requested a review from the California Supreme Court. The California Supreme Court granted review.

Issue: Whether a contractor’s hirer can be liable to the contractor’s employee when it fails to take certain safety steps?

The California Supreme Court granted review to consider whether a company that hires a contractor can be held liable to the contractor’s employee for failing to take certain proactive safety measures. The court also considered whether the trial court erred by giving the jury instruction about the Hooker factors and whether the instruction did not properly explain affirmative contribution.

Rule: When a company hires an independent contractor, it is presumed that the company has delegated the safety responsibilities to the contractor.

When companies hire independent contractors, the contractors control how they perform their work. Companies that hire independent contractors do so partly because they are better able to perform their work safely and correctly. Employees of contractors can normally pursue workers’ compensation claims against their employers but generally cannot hold the companies that hire them for the injuries they suffer while working on the job.

Analysis

In most cases, employees of independent contractors who suffer work injuries while performing work for a third party that has hired the contractors cannot hold the hirers liable for their injuries.[2] Instead, they are normally limited to pursuing workers’ compensation claims through their employers.[3]

The court began by discussing the Privette doctrine from Privette v. Superior Court, 5 Cal.4th 689 (1993).[4] Under this doctrine, hirers are generally not considered liable to employees of the contractors they hire to perform work since the contractors maintain control over the safety conditions of their work. However, hirers might be liable if they retain control over the safety conditions or affirmatively contribute to a contractor’s employee’s injuries.

The court noted that a hirer can be liable if it withholds safety information from a contractor under the decision in Kinsman v. Unocal Corp., 37 Cal.4th 659 (2005).[5] The court considered Qualcomm’s power down process and whether that meant that the company had retained control of the safety conditions of TransPower’s work. It noted that Qualcomm informed Sharghi that there was still live power to all of the other circuits and had only authorized him and his employees to inspect the cogen circuit and not any other circuits. However, Sharghi had Guardana remove the cover from an adjacent circuit anyway and did not inform anyone that the electricity to it was still live.

The court found that Qualcomm did not retain control over the safety conditions of how TransPower performed its work but instead delegated control to TransPower. It also found that the company did not conceal a hidden condition. Instead, it had informed Sharghi that the other circuits remained live. It found that it was not Qualcomm’s duty to personally inform each of TransPower’s employees, including Sandoval, about the existence of the dangerous condition. Instead, it was Sharghi’s responsibility to inform his employees that the other circuits were live. Finally, the court also found that the jury instruction that was given did not adequately explain affirmative contribution to the jury.

Conclusion

The court reversed the Court of Appeal and directed it to remand the case back to the trial court. It also instructed the trial court to reverse its decision and enter a judgment notwithstanding the verdict in favor of Qualcomm.

Speak to an experienced work injury lawyer

If you have suffered injuries at work while working for a contractor at a third party’s site, you should speak to an attorney to understand which parties might be liable for your injuries. Contact an attorney at the Steven M. Sweat, Personal Injury Lawyers, APC by calling 866-966-5240.

Sources

[1] https://law.justia.com/cases/california/supreme-court/2021/s252796.html?utm_source=summary-newsletters&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=2021-09-10-supreme-court-of-california-4b7a7d564f&utm_content=text-case-read-more-1

[2] https://www.victimslawyer.com/work-injuries.html

[3] https://www.victimslawyer.com/can-i-get-fired-for-filing-a-workers-compensation-case-in-califo.html

[4] https://www.casemine.com/judgement/us/59148635add7b049344d2465

[5] https://casetext.com/case/kinsman-v-unocal-corp-2

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