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California Construction Site Accident Claim Presents Issues Regarding Liability

construction-site-accident-attorneys-Los-AngelesAt construction sites in California, it is common for several different companies to perform different types of work. When an employee of one company is injured while working on a construction site by a company other than his or her employer, he or she has the right to file a lawsuit against the negligent party while also recovering benefits through his or her employer’s workers’ compensation insurance. In some construction accidents, several third parties may be involved. In Atlas Construction Supply v. Swinerton Builders, Cal. Ct. App. Case No. D076426, the Court of Appeals considered whether one third party had the standing to appeal the trial court’s decision to grant a motion for summary judgment to a codefendant.[1]

Factual and procedural background

Marcelo Devalasco, Sr. was employed by J.R. Construction as a construction worker. J.R. Construction was hired by Swinerton Builders, a general contractor who was working on a residential development in San Diego. Swinerton also hired Brewer Crane & Rigging to perform work on the project. J.R. Construction rented a concrete form that was 10 feet tall and between 300 and 400 pounds from Atlas Construction Supply. Brewer placed the form upright at the worksite without any supporting braces. Devalasco and a second worker climbed the concrete form to change its size. The other worker stepped off of the form, and Devalasco’s weight caused it to be unbalanced. It fell over, crushing Devalasco and killing him.

Devalasco’s surviving family members filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Atlas, Brewer, and Swinerton, alleging negligence against all of the defendants and product liability against Atlas. A cross-complaint was filed by Atlas against Swinerton for declaratory relief, equitable indemnity, and contribution.

Swinerton filed a summary judgment motion for the cause of action the plaintiffs had filed against it. It argued that the Privette doctrine prevented the plaintiffs from suing Swinerton since it was the general contractor that had hired a subcontractor whose employee was injured on the inherently dangerous worksite. Under Privette v. Superior Court, 5 Cal.4th 689 (1993), a company that hires a contractor to perform work that is inherently dangerous cannot be held liable when an employee of the contractor is injured while performing the work at the site.[2] The plaintiffs argued that the Privette doctrine did not apply because they were not arguing that J.R. Construction was negligent or caused Devalasco’s accident and death. Instead, they were arguing that a different contractor, Brewer, was negligent and caused Devalsaco’s death.

Atlas also filed a motion to oppose the summary judgment motion filed by Swinerton. It argued that the plaintiffs could hold Swinerton liable under an exception to the Privette doctrine for general contractors that retain control over the safety conditions of the worksite. The court tentatively granted Swinerton’s motion for summary judgment and rejected the plaintiffs’ argument. It declined to consider Atlas’s motion in opposition and found that Atlas did not have the standing to file an opposition to summary judgment. It also found that granting a motion for summary judgment to Swinerton for the plaintiffs’ complaint would not extinguish Atlas’s cross-complaint. The court ordered the parties to file supplemental briefs. In its supplemental brief, Atlas argued that it was an adverse party to Swinerton since it had filed a cross-complaint. It also argued that granting a motion for summary judgment to Swinerton would prevent Atlas from attributing any of the fault to Swinerton. The court entered a final order granting summary judgment to Swinerton.

Swinerton then settled with the plaintiffs by agreeing to waive its costs of $5,349. It then asked the court to dismiss Atlas’s cross-complaint and to determine that it had made a good faith settlement. It argued that it did not hold any liability under the Privette doctrine that could be apportioned to it and that the exception did not apply. Atlas opposed the motion. The court granted Swinerton’s good faith settlement but denied its motion to dismiss Atlas’s cross-complaint. Atlas and Swinerton then filed a stipulated motion to dismiss Atlas’s cross-complaint, and the court granted it. Atlas then filed an appeal.

Issue: Whether Atlas was an aggrieved party and had the standing to file an opposition to Swinerton’s motion for summary judgment?

Atlas argued that it was an aggrieved party and thus had the standing to file a motion in opposition to the motion for summary judgment that was filed by Swinerton. It argued that the court erred when it declined to consider Atlas’s motion opposing the motion for summary judgment filed by Swinerton. Swinerton argued that Atlas was not aggrieved by the trial court’s ruling and that the Court of Appeals did not have jurisdiction to hear the argument. It also argued that Atlas did not have the standing to appeal the court’s ruling on the summary judgment motion.

Rule: A party that is aggrieved by an order has the standing to file an appeal.

Under CCP § 902, only the parties that are aggrieved by an order can appeal the decision. Atlas argued that it was aggrieved because it shared the plaintiffs’ interests in holding Swinerton liable to reduce its own liability. It also argued that it was aggrieved because it would be unable to attribute any of the fault to Swinerton at trial. Swinerton argued that the appeals court did not have jurisdiction because Atlas was not a party that was aggrieved by the court’s order granting the motion for summary judgment.

Analysis

In California, construction accidents may have third parties that share liability for the accidents’ causes. When this happens, an injured worker or the family of a worker who is killed in a construction site accident can file a lawsuit against the negligent third parties while also filing a workers’ compensation claim with the victim’s employer.

In considering Atlas’s argument that it was an aggrieved party and thus had standing to file an appeal, the court looked at the statutory language of § 902 and the case law about aggrieved parties. To be considered to be an aggrieved party, the injury the party suffered must be immediate, financial, and substantial. It cannot be an injury that is remote or nominal. A party will not have the standing to appeal a decision that affected the rights of someone else. Having the standing to appeal is a requirement for jurisdiction to be found and cannot be waived.

Under Holt v. Booth, 1 Cal. App. 4th 1074 (1991), a party is not aggrieved when a court excuses a different tortfeasor from liability in a lawsuit for purposes of determining the standing to appeal. A party that is independently negligent does not have the standing to appeal a trial court’s decision to grant a different defendant’s motion for summary judgment even when the independently negligent party would otherwise have a right of contribution or when the trial court’s decision was in error. The court determined that Atlas was not an aggrieved party and thus did not have the standing to appeal the trial court’s decision to grant the summary judgment motion to Swinerton.

Conclusion

The court dismissed Atlas’s appeal of the trial court’s order granting summary judgment to Swinerton. It also affirmed the trial court’s decision regarding the good faith settlement determination. Swinerton was awarded its costs for the appeal.

Get help from an experienced injury accident lawyer

It is common for multiple subcontracting companies to work on a construction site together. When an employee of one subcontractor negligently injures the employee of a different subcontractor at the same site, the injured victim may file a negligence lawsuit against the negligent third party and other involved third parties. The worker can also file a workers’ compensation claim with his or her employer’s insurance company. Filing third-party liability claims can help a construction accident victim to recover maximal compensation for their losses. If you have been injured while working on a construction site or have lost your loved one in a construction accident, you should consult with an attorney about your claim at the Steven M. Sweat Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us for a consultation by calling 866.966.5240.

Sources

[1] https://law.justia.com/cases/california/court-of-appeal/2021/d076426.html?utm_source=summary-newsletters&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=2021-01-29-personal-injury-f94658e7a1&utm_content=text-case-title-9

[2] http://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=14363312914258699165&hl=en&as_sdt=6&as_vis=1&oi=scholarr

[3] http://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/codes_displaySection.xhtml?sectionNum=902&lawCode=CCP

[4] https://law.justia.com/cases/california/court-of-appeal/4th/1/1074.html

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