Sep 13

California Supreme Court Reaffirms Strong Presumption Against Liability of Hirers for Injuries to Contractor’s Employees: Sandoval v. Qualcomm, Inc. (Sept. 9, 2021)

California Supreme Court Reaffirms Strong Presumption Against Liability of Hirers for Injuries to Contractor’s Employees: <em>Sandoval v. Qualcomm, Inc.</em> (Sept. 9, 2021)

Brian T. Gravdal, Esq.

In Sandoval v. Qualcomm, Inc. (S252796, September 9, 2021), the California Supreme Court reaffirmed the general rule that “hirers who fully and effectively delegate work to a contractor owe no tort duty to that contractor’s workers.”
An electrical parts specialist (contractor’s employee) sustained third degree burns to over one third of the surface area of his body after he triggered an arc flash from a circuit he did not realize was “live” with flowing electricity. The contractor for whom he had been working had removed the protective cover on that live circuit while work was underway. Immediately prior to the incident, Qualcomm’s employees had performed a “power-down process”: a process of multiple steps designed to ensure there would be no live electricity flowing through the main cogen cubicle during the inspection. Sandoval filed suit against Qualcomm and others, asserting causes of action for negligence and premises liability.
Following trial, post-trial motions and the appeals process, the California Supreme Court granted review “to resolve whether a hirer of an independent contractor may be liable to a contractor’s employee based only on the hirer’s failure to undertake certain safety measures to protect the contractor’s employees, and whether CACI No. 1009B accurately states the relevant law.” In answering these questions, the Court held as follows:

[Qualcomm], the hirer in this case, owed no tort duty to plaintiff Martin Sandoval, the parts specialist working for Qualcomm’s contractor, at the time of Sandoval’s injuries. Although Qualcomm performed the partial power-down process that preceded the contractor’s work and resulted in the presence of the live electrical circuit, we conclude on the record here that Qualcomm neither failed to sufficiently disclose that hazard under Kinsman nor affirmatively contributed to the injury under Hooker. We also conclude that the pattern jury instruction used in this case – CACI No. 1009B – does not adequately capture the elements of a Hooker claim. So we reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeal and remand this case. The appellate court is instructed to remand this case to the trial court, so it can enter judgment for Qualcomm notwithstanding the verdict.

In discussing “presumptive delegation,” the Court stated the general rule that “[a] presumptive delegation of tort duties occurs when the hirer turns over control of the worksite to the contractor so that the contractor can perform the contracted work. Our premise is ordinarily that when the hirer delegates control, the hirer simultaneously delegates all tort duties the hirer might otherwise owe the contract workers.” If a contract worker becomes injured after that delegation takes place, “we presume that the contractor alone – and not the hirer – was responsible for any failure to take reasonable precautions.”
After stating this general rule, the Court explained the two recognized exceptions to this presumption. The first is the “concealed hazards exception” (under Kinsman). Under this exception, a landowner-hirer cannot effectively delegate its duties respecting a concealed hazard without disclosing that hazard to the contractor. In this context, a “concealed” hazard means something specific: a hazard that the hirer either knows or reasonably should know exists, and that the contractor does not know exists and could not reasonably discover without the hirer’s disclosure. The second is the “retained control” exception (under Hooker). Under this exception, hirers do not always fully delegate control to their contractors. Stated differently, in some such “retained control” situations, the hirer must owe a duty of care to the contract workers. A plaintiff in such cases “must establish not only that the hirer retained control over the contracted work, but also that the hirer actually exercised that retained control in a manner that affirmatively contributed to the contract worker’s injury. The Hooker exception is, broadly speaking, comprised of three key concepts: (i) retained control; (ii) actual exercise; and (iii) affirmative contribution. After some discussion, and as stated above, the Court held that neither of the recognized exceptions applied, and thus, Qualcomm owed no duty to Sandoval. For example, the “power-down process” performed by Qualcomm was insufficient to prove retained control.
Finally, the Court also took issue with CACI No. 1009B (“Liability to Employees of Independent Contractors for Unsafe Conditions – Retained Control”) and concluded that it does not adequately instruct juries on the necessary elements of a Hooker claim. Ibid. The Court explained:

Whether the hirer “retained control over safety conditions at the worksite” (CACI No. 1009B) does not properly capture whether the hirer retained control over the manner of performance of some part of the work entrusted to the contractor. Whether the hirer “negligently exercised [its] retained control over safety conditions” does not properly capture whether the hirer actually exercised its retained control. And whether the hirer’s “negligent exercise of [its] retained control over safety conditions was a substantial factor in causing [plaintiff]’s harm” does not properly capture whether the hirer’s exercise of retained control affirmatively contributed to the plaintiff’s injury. The Judicial Council and its Advisory Committee on Civil Jury Instructions should update this instruction with suitable language consistent with this opinion.

To read the full Sandoval opinion, click HERE.
The attorneys at Berman, Berman, Berman, Schneider & Lowary LLP will continue to monitor these developments and can address any questions you have regarding the above. They are uniquely qualified to provide additional insight and guidance.