How to Avoid Liability for an Independent Contractor’s Injuries (Hint: Don’t Throw Stones)

“The Wound was Bound,” 1912. From NYPL Collection.

Sometimes injuries can be reasonably expected, sometimes not.

A good example of when injuries can be expected is the annual Bagwal festival in northern India. This year’s festival was described by Indian media as “a low-key affair” with only 77 of the 300 participants sustaining injuries. Wait, what?

At Bagwal, participants divide into four clans and hurl stones at each other to please a deity. According to this report, “The fight continues until a priest determines that enough blood has been shed in honor of the goddess Maa Barahi and demands to stop the fight.”

A good example of when injuries are not expected is when you retain an independent contractor to perform some sort of work on your property. Sometimes there are known hazards on the property. Sometimes there are no reasonable safety precautions that can be taken to minimize the hazard. For example, suppose you retain a contractor to fix a known safety risk.

The question: When an independent contractor gets injured by one of those known hazards, who is liable?

The California Supreme Court recently addressed this question in a case with significant ramifications for business owners, property owners, and independent contractors.

The answer: The contractor is liable, not the property owner — but this assumes the contractor is properly classified as an independent contractor.

The rationale: Like in many states, California law presumes “that a hirer of an independent contractor delegates to the contractor all responsibility for workplace safety.” This doctrine, known in California as the Privette doctrine, means that a hirer is typically not responsible for injuries suffered by an independent contractor.

The Privette doctrine makes sense. It arose out based on four basic assumptions:

  1. Hirers have no right to control an independent contractor’s work.
  2. Contractors can factor in the cost of safety precautions and insurance in the contract price.
  3. Contractors are able to obtain workers’ compensation coverage to cover any on-the-job injuries.
  4. Contractors are typically hired for their expertise, which includes knowing how to perform the contracted work safely.

There are two exceptions:

  1. A hirer may be liable when it exercises control over any part of the contractor’s work and negligently exercises that control in a way that contributes to the injury.
  2. A landowner who hires an independent contractor may be liable if the landowner knew, or should have known, of a concealed hazard on the property that the contractor did not know of and could not have reasonably discovered, and the landowner failed to warn the contractor of the hazard.

In Gonzalez v. Mathis, the court was asked whether a third exception should be recognized when injuries “result from a known hazard on the premises where there were no reasonable safety precautions it could have adopted to avoid or minimize the hazard.”

The court declined to recognize this exception, holding that in this situation, the contractor is liable, not the hirer. Rules may vary in other states.

What should businesses do to protect themselves, in light of this ruling?

  1. Make sure your contractors are properly classified as independent contractors under the applicable legal test. California uses an ABC Test for making this determination. Other California laws, such as Labor Code 2750.5 and 2810.3 complicate the analysis.
  2. Make sure your contractors are licensed and insured. Licensing by the Contractors State Licensing Board is required in California for anyone who contracts to perform work on a project that is valued at $500 or more for combined labor and materials costs.
  3. Do not exercise control over your contractors. Defer to their expertise.
  4. Disclose known hazards, especially those that are not readily visible.

And if you’re looking for repair work to be done at or near a Bagwal festival, don’t forget warn your contractor about the risk of flying stones.

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© 2021 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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New California Law Aims to Punish Contractors for Wage Violations They Did Not Commit. Huh?

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Suppose you are a general contractor, hired to erect a monument to honor Carlos Santana’s monument-worthy performance of the national anthem during last year’s NBA Finals. Because the monument will be so tall (to house the many awards he should win for it), you need to hire subcontractors. Suppose the subcontractors cheat their employees, though, and don’t pay them a proper wage.

Under a new California law, the general contractor is strictly liable for the sub’s wage violations.

There’s no balancing test. No Right to Control Test. No joint employment finding needed. It’s strict liability. Call it the Jerry Brown corollary to Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn Rule. Someone else breaks it, you own it.

I hear you: “Not fair!” But as we all know, fair is not a required feature element of employment law in California. (Fair may still be an element of due process, however, for those who may seek to challenge the constitutionality of this law.)

The new law, cleverly titled “Section 218.7,” took effect January 1, 2018.

To try to protect themselves, contractors may require their subs to show proof of payment by the subs to its employees. They may also tell noncompliant subs, “you’ve got to change your evil ways, baby, before I start loving you.” But most contractors probably won’t say that.

© 2018 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Did You Know You Can Be Cited for OSHA Violations for Non-Employee Workers?

osha violations joint employment

Can OSHA cite your business for conditions that affect another company’s employees? Maybe.

OSHA’s Multi-Employer Citation Policy addresses who gets cited for violations that occur on a multi-employer worksite. If your company hosts staffing agency workers, that may include you.

The policy has been subjected to several legal challenges, though, based on an argument that OSHA obligations extend only to an employer’s own employees. One of these challenges is currently pending in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, based on a dispute over an Austin, Texas, construction site.

While we wait for a decision, though, here’s what OSHA has to say about its authority to issue citations on multi-employer worksites: Continue reading