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California Appeals Court Reviews Construction Site Accident Claim

General contractors in California will generally not be liable for injuries that are suffered by the employees of their subcontractors while they are working at construction sites. However, if the general contractors exercise control over the safety practices in the working area where the accidents happen, they may be liable to pay damages to the injured workers. In Torres v. Design Group Facility Solutions, Inc., Cal. Ct. App. Case No. B294220, the court considered a case in which the employee of a subcontractor was injured while he was working.[1] It looked at whether the court erred in granting a motion for reconsideration and a motion for summary judgment at the same time without giving the plaintiff a chance to respond.

Factual and procedural background

Design Group Facility Solutions was hired as the general contractor for an expansion and renovation project of a seafood factory. The company subcontracted with C&L Refrigeration for the installation of new refrigeration units. C&L Refrigeration hired H.J. Vast to complete the electrical work. Ismael Torres was employed by H.J. Vast.

Workers on the project had to work on the roof, which had skylights. There were eastern and western sections of the roof. On the western side, the skylights were clustered closer together. On the eastern side, the skylights were spaced further apart. Design Group talked with C&L Refrigeration about the dangers posed by the skylights. C&L constructed a walkway on the roof and required all of its workers to walk west on it. Dangerous areas were marked with caution tape. However, Design and C&L did not mark the eastern section of the roof. While Torres was working on the eastern side, he tripped and fell 33 feet through a skylight. Torres filed a lawsuit against Design. Design filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that Torres’s claim was barred under the Privette doctrine. This general rule comes from Privette v. Superior Court, 5 Cal.4th 689 (1993) and states that a general contractor is generally not liable for injuries to the employees of its subcontractors.[2] Torres requested several continuances to depose witnesses, including the site manager, Torres, and the worker who saw Torres’s fall. Torres filed an opposition to Design’s motion for summary judgment and included some of the new evidence.

Design’s motion for summary judgment was then denied by the court. The court found that there were triable issues about whether Design retained enough control over the worksite for liability to attach and whether its negligence contributed to Torres’s fall and injuries. The site manager had stated when he was deposed that he would check to see if the path’s boundaries were connected with rope, wire, or tape. The court found that this indicated that Design might have retained control over the roof area.

The company then filed a motion for reconsideration under Cal. Code Civ. Proc. § 1008(a).[3] Under this rule, a party can ask for a reconsideration of a previous order. Design submitted new evidence with its motion for reconsideration. The court then issued a single order in which it granted Design’s reconsideration motion and its motion for summary judgment without allowing Torres to respond to the newly submitted evidence. Torres filed an appeal.

Issue: Whether a court can reconsider new evidence after a motion for summary judgment has been filed without giving the opposing party the chance to respond?

Torres filed an appeal on two grounds. He first argued that Design’s motion for reconsideration did not meet the requirements for new evidence under Sect. 1008 because the evidence was available from one to five months before the hearing on Design’s summary judgment motion, but Design did not raise it at the hearing. Second, Torres argued that how the trial court granted the motion for reconsideration at the same time as the summary judgment motion deprived him of the ability to respond to it.

Rule: Parties that oppose a summary judgment motion must be given 75 days of notice of new evidence and a chance to respond.

Under Cal. Civ. Code Proc. 437(c), the parties that are opposing a motion for summary judgment are required to be provided 75 days notice of new evidence and afforded a chance to respond to it.[4] By contrast, Sect. 1008(a) allows a party to ask the court to reconsider a prior order by filing a motion within 10 days.

Analysis

Construction site accidents may involve several potentially liable parties.[5] However, Design argued that it was not liable under the Privette doctrine and that the court properly granted both its motion for reconsideration and its motion for summary judgment.

The court first stated that it would not look at Torres’s first argument on the merits and instead considered his second argument about how the trial court granted the motion for reconsideration and the summary judgment motion in a single order. The court found that Design did file the motion for reconsideration within 10 days as required by Sect. 1008(a). However, it found that Torres was owed some procedural protections by Sect. 437(c). When a party that moves for summary judgment introduces new evidence, the opposing party must be given 75 days of notice. The opposing party must also be given a chance to respond to the newly introduced evidence.

The appeals court then looked at how the court issued its order. When the court granted Design’s motion for reconsideration and its summary judgment motion in one order, it failed to provide Torres with an opportunity to respond to the evidence that Design submitted with its motion for reconsideration. The appeals court found that this created prejudicial error by allowing Design to avoid the procedural protections afforded to the parties opposing summary judgment motions in Sect. 437(c).

Conclusion

The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s ruling and sent the case back for further proceedings. Torres was awarded his legal costs on his appeal.

Get help from the Steven M. Sweat, Personal Injury Lawyers

If you have suffered injuries while you were working for a company that had subcontracted to perform work for a different company, you might have legal rights to recover damages from the company that hired your employer in some cases. Contact the Steven M. Sweat, Personal Injury Lawyers today to schedule a consultation by calling 310.592.0445.

Sources

[1] https://law.justia.com/cases/california/court-of-appeal/2020/b294220.html?utm_source=summary-newsletters&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=2020-02-14-personal-injury-c625d2b753&utm_content=text-case-read-more-5

[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://codes.findlaw.com/ca/code-of-civil-procedure/ccp-sect-1008.html

[4] https://law.justia.com/codes/california/2005/ccp/437c-438.html

[5] https://www.victimslawyer.com/construction-injuries.html

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