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California Court Rules Against Worker Seeking Personal Injury Damages

work-injury-claims-attorney-Los-AngelesPeople who are injured at work because of the negligence of a third party other than their employers may be able to recover workers’ compensation benefits while also filing negligence lawsuits against the third party. However, if the victims are employed by an independent contractor that is hired by the negligent third party, the ability to recover damages through the third-party claim may be limited by the Privette rule unless an exception applies. In Horne v. Ahern Rentals, Inc., Cal. Ct. App. Case No. B299605, the appeals court reviewed a wrongful death claim against the hirer of the independent contractor for which the victim worked.[1]

Factual and procedural background

Ruben Dickerson was employed by 24-Hour Tire Service, a company that had contracted with Ahern Rentals to provide tire repair and tire change services for almost 10 years. Ahern Rentals was a company that rented forklifts and heavy machinery to construction businesses. Dickerson had been employed by 24-Hour Tire service for more than a decade before the date of his accident. He was killed on Nov. 24, 2015, while he was changing the tires on a forklift while on the premises of Ahern Rentals. His surviving family members recovered workers’ compensation benefits from 24-Hour Tire Service’s insurance provider. They subsequently filed a personal injury claim against Ahern Rentals, alleging that the company was negligent in its failure to provide a level surface for the tire replacement work.

Ahern Rentals argued that the action against it was barred under the Privette rule, which states that employees of an independent contractor that contracts with another company cannot sue the hiring company for injuries that they sustain when performing inherently dangerous work. The plaintiffs argued that the case fell under an exception to the Privette rule because Ahern Rentals retained control over the safety conditions on the site and that its exercise of that control affirmatively contributed to Dickerson’s accident and death.

Ahern Rentals presented evidence to support its motion for summary judgment about the events leading up to the accident. They argued that 24-Hour Tire Service had sent two employees to the job site two days before to remove the wheels and tires from the forklift. The workers used jacks that were in Ahern’s storage to jack up the forklift. 24-Hour Tire Service then arranged for another company to cut off and remove the tires from the wheels, put new tires on them, and deliver them back to the job site. The wheels with the new tires were returned to Ahern Rentals the day before Dickerson’s accident.

An employee of Ahern Rentals did not look at the condition of the jacks or the forklift on the day of the accident. Dickerson crawled under the forklift without inspecting anything first. The employee, Steven Daetwaeiler, did not see Dickerson go under the forklift. Another employee did but said he thought that was the right way to do it since that is how Dickerson had always done it in the past. Dickerson took a jack under the forklift and put his entire body underneath. When he tried to jack it up so that the wheels could be placed back on the forklift, it fell and killed him.

Daetwaeiler testified that the asphalt under the forklift was slightly uneven. However, he also said that the surface was level overall and did not make him concerned about working on the forklift there. The plaintiffs presented testimony from a civil engineer who testified that a combination of the uneven surface and the fact that the forklift’s boom was in a raised position contributed to the accident. The trial court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, finding that the plaintiffs had failed to present evidence to show that the defendant’s negligent exercise of control affirmatively contributed to the accident and Dickerson’s death. The plaintiffs filed an appeal.

Issue: Whether Ahern’s negligence in selecting the worksite and parking the forklift with the boom lifted affirmatively contributed to the accident and resulting death?

On appeal, the plaintiffs argued that the trial court erred when it granted Ahern’s motion for summary judgment. They argued that they had presented sufficient evidence that Ahern had retained control over the safety conditions of the job site. They also argued that Ahern’s negligence in the way in which it retained control affirmatively contributed to Dickerson’s accident and death. The defendant argued that the claim was barred under the Privette rule and that the plaintiffs failed to present sufficient evidence that any negligence affirmatively contributed to the accident and death.

Rule: A hirer of an independent contractor may be liable for injuries caused to the contractor’s employee when the hirer retains control over the safety conditions of the worksite and the hirer’s negligence affirmatively contributes to the accident and injuries.

In some cases involving injuries at work, the victim may be able to recover workers’ compensation from his or her employer while also filing a claim against a negligent third party that caused the accident and injuries.[2] However, the situation might be different when the injured victim works for an independent contractor that is hired by the negligent third party to perform work at the job site.

Under the Privette rule, hirers of independent contractors are not liable for the injuries that are suffered by the employees of the contractors when they are performing inherently dangerous work. However, the Hooker principle is an exception to the general rule. Under the Hooker principle, a hirer may be liable for injuries to the contractor’s employee when the hirer retains control over the safety conditions of the job site and affirmatively contributes to the accident and injuries through negligence. When a defendant presents evidence that the Privette rule applies because of the relationship between the hirer and the independent contractor, the burden of proof will then shift to the plaintiff that a triable issue of material fact remains.

Analysis

The plaintiffs argued that Ahern Rentals retained control over the safety conditions by setting up the worksite for the tire service and parking the forklift. They argued that the employees of 24-Hour Tire Service could not drive the forklift and were not trained to recognize when it was parked incorrectly. However, the court found that these facts did not demonstrate that the defendant’s retained control affirmatively contributed to the accident and injuries.

Under the Hooker principle, a hirer may be liable to the employees of an independent contractor only when the hirer actively tells the employee how to perform the work in a specific way or fails to implement a safety measure that the hirer has promised. In this case, the court found that the plaintiffs had not presented evidence of either situation on the part of Ahern Rentals. The court found that when a hirer passively allows an unsafe condition to exist, it does not affirmatively contribute to a resulting accident and injury. It also found that failing to implement a safety measure is not actionable against a hirer unless the hirer has promised to implement it.

Conclusion

The court affirmed the trial court’s ruling in granting the motion for summary judgment. The case was dismissed, and the court ordered that the defendant was entitled to recover its costs for the appeal.

Contact the Steven M. Sweat Personal Injury Lawyers

If you have suffered serious injuries at work because of the negligence of a third party, you may be entitled to file a personal injury claim against the third party while also recovering workers’ compensation from your employer. Contact the Steven M. Sweat Personal Injury lawyers today for a free evaluation of your potential claim by calling us at 866.966.5240.

Sources

[1] https://law.justia.com/cases/california/court-of-appeal/2020/b299605.html?utm_source=summary-newsletters&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=2020-06-12-personal-injury-3f7100e188&utm_content=text-case-read-more-5

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

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