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Court of Appeal reverses decision in work injury case

Some Californians work for subcontractors who contract with contractors to perform work at construction sites in the state. When an employee of a subcontractor is injured while working at the construction site, the contractor that contracted with the worker’s employer to perform services will only be liable for the injuries when specific situations apply. The California Court of Appeal considered whether the trial court erred in its jury instructions and a denial of the defendant’s motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict in the case of Alaniz v. Sun Pacific Shippers, Cal. Ct. App., Case No. B290013[1].

Case background

Jesus Alaniz was an employee of Navarro Trucking. Navarro Trucking subcontracted with a company named Sun Shippers to transport mandarin oranges from the company’s orchard. Alaniz brought some empty fruit bins to Sun Pacific’s orchard sometime in February 2012. When he arrived, he was told to park at an area where a forklift could unload the bins. Alaniz parked his truck and climbed onto the back of the trailer to move bins so that Roberto Reynosa, an employee who was driving the forklift for a different subcontractor named J. Antonio Rosa Lule, could unload them from the trailer’s north side. Alaniz tried to pull a stack of fruit bins closer for Reynosa to reach and fell off the trailer. When he fell, Reynosa accidentally drove over his leg. Reynosa asked Alaniz if he wanted Reynosa to drive him to the doctor, but Alaniz continued to work instead. He sought medical care four hours after his accident and had to have surgery on his leg and shoulder.

Alaniz filed a lawsuit against Lule, Reynosa, and Sun Pacific for negligence and Sun Pacific for premises liability. Alaniz said that Merino, an employee of Sun Pacific, told him where to park his truck. There was a line of vehicles on the road’s south side that prevented a forklift from getting through to unload the bins from that side. Merino denied telling Alaniz where to park. Reynosa testified that Merino told him to relay information to Alaniz about where to park. However, he denied that Alaniz couldn’t park in such a way for the trailer to be unloaded from the south side or to climb on the trailer to move the bins closer.

The court denied Lule and Reynosa’s requests for the jury to be instructed under the Privette/Hooker doctrine and instead only instructed the jury about ordinary negligence. The court also gave general premises liability instructions but did not instruct the jury about the Privette/Hooker doctrine as applied to the duties of a landowner to an independent contractor’s employee. The jury found in favor of Alaniz and against Lule, Reynosa, Sun Pacific, and Navarro Trucking. It found that Sun Pacific was 40% at fault and that Lule and Reynosa were 35% at fault. The jury found that Navarro Trucking was 15% at fault and assigned the remaining 10% of the fault to Alaniz. The verdict award was reduced by the unemployment compensation that Alaniz received. His net verdict was $2,563,190 for his past and future anticipated special and general damages. Alaniz’s wife was awarded $131,250 for loss of consortium damages.

Sun Pacific filed a motion for a JNOV and a new trial. It argued that the evidence did not support a finding of premises liability or negligence. The court denied Sun Pacific’s motions, and the company filed an appeal.

Issue: Did the court err when it failed to give a jury instruction about the Privette/Hooker doctrine and when it refused Sun Pacific’s motion for a JNOV or a new trial?

Sun Pacific’s appeal alleged several grounds of error by the trial court. The company first argued that the court erred when it failed to instruct the jury about the Privette/Hooker doctrine under the theories of negligence and premises liability. The company also argued that the court erred when it denied the company’s motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict and a motion for a new trial. The plaintiff argued that the company forfeited its right to argue about the court’s failure to instruct the jury about the Privette/Hooker doctrine on appeal because the company did not join Lule and Reynosa when they requested the instruction. Alaniz also argued that the court’s denial of Sun Pacific’s motion for a JNOV and a new trial was proper.

Rules: 1) A landowner that hires an independent contractor is liable to its employees only when the landowner retains control of the safety of the property and when its retention of that control substantially contributes to the independent contractor’s employee’s injuries. 2) The court must grant a judgment notwithstanding the verdict when the jury’s verdict is not supported by substantial evidence.

The trial court’s jury instruction about premises liability told the jury that the landowner is liable if it failed to exercise reasonable care and its failure was a contributing factor to the resulting injuries. The Privette/Hooker doctrine says that a landowner is only liable to an independent contractor’s employees if the landowner retained control of the property’s safety conditions and the retention of the control was a substantial contributing factor of the injuries that resulted. When a losing party moves for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict, the court must grant it only when the verdict is not supported by substantial evidence that was presented during the jury trial.

Analysis

When people are injured at work, they normally are limited to pursuing workers’ compensation claims against their employers but cannot file lawsuits against them. However, if their injuries result from the negligence of a third party, they may have grounds to file a lawsuit against the third party.[2] In the case of Alaniz, he filed a lawsuit against Sun Pacific to recover damages for its alleged negligence and premises liability for allegedly failing to exercise reasonable care to prevent his injuries. The Privette/Hooker doctrine has slightly different rules when a case involves a general contractor’s potential liability for the injuries suffered by the employee of an independent contractor, however.

The court first considered the court’s jury instructions and whether they amounted to prejudicial error. The court relied on Kinsman v. Unocal Corp., 110 Cal.App.4th 826 (2005) and found that it was controlling.[3] In that case, the court found that a landowner that hires an independent contractor can only be liable in a premises liability action for the injuries to the contractor’s employee when all of the following circumstances apply:

  • The landowner knew or reasonably should have known about the existence of a concealed and preexisting dangerous condition.
  • The independent contractor did not know about and could not have reasonably discovered the dangerous condition.
  • The landowner failed to warn the contractor about the hidden condition.

When the appeals court applied the holding in Kinsman to the Alaniz case, the court held that the jury instructions were erroneous because they did not inform the jury about how the standard applies to landowners and their duties to an independent contractor’s employees. The court also found that the trial court’s error was prejudicial, meaning that the jury might have reached a different decision if it had been properly instructed. The court found that Sun Pacific did not forfeit the argument on appeal because the instructions as given were an incorrect statement of the law that applied.

The court then considered whether the court erred when it denied Sun Pacific’s motion for a JNOV or a new trial. The court found that there was some evidence that Sun Pacific did keep its control over where Alaniz was to park for the bins to be unloaded and that its retention of the control contributed to his injuries. It found that the trial court was correct in denying the JNOV for the negligence cause of action. However, it also found that the trial court erred when it denied the JNOV for the premises liability cause of action because Alaniz could see that the lane was too narrow to park, meaning that the dangerous condition was not hidden or concealed.

Conclusion

The court reversed the trial court’s ruling in part on the JNOV and in full on the jury instructions. The case was remanded to the trial court for a new trial on the cause of action for negligence. The appeals court directed the verdict in favor of Sun Pacific on the premises liability cause of action against Sun Pacific.

Contact the Steven M. Sweat Personal Injury Lawyers

If you were seriously injured on the property of a landowner while you were working for an independent contractor, you should consult with a knowledgeable personal injury and premises liability attorney to learn about the legal options that you might have. Contact our law firm today at 866.966.5240 to schedule a free consultation.

Sources

[1] https://law.justia.com/cases/california/court-of-appeal/2020/b290013a.html?utm_source=summary-newsletters&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=2020-05-01-personal-injury-8af23954f0&utm_content=text-case-read-more-9

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

[3] https://www.casemine.com/judgement/us/5914b7daadd7b0493478196e

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