When someone suffers a work-related injury, typically the only remedy they have against the employer is a claim for workers’ compensation benefits. However, the exclusivity provision of workers’ compensation law does not prohibit injured workers or their families from seeking compensation from negligent third parties. In some cases, that could include the owner of the property where the work was being conducted.
One such case was recently weighed by an appellate court in California. In Regalado v. Callaghan, justices were asked to consider whether the trial court made any mistakes that resulted in a finding that a homeowner was liable for the injuries suffered by an employee of a pool contractor. Jurors at trial had found the homeowner 40 percent liable for the worker’s injuries based on theories of negligence and premises liability and ordered him to pay $3 million in damages.
According to court records, the homeowner was a licensed subcontractor who wanted to build a “dream house” for his wife in the Coachella Valley. He acted as an owner-builder for his home project, meaning he obtained the permits for construction and served as the person responsible for overseeing the construction – similar to the role a general contractor would take on.
He obtained a building permit, did all the concrete work himself and then hired licensed contractors to complete the other work. He was at the site daily, tracking the progress, asking subcontractors about the progress and seeking word on when he could call for inspections.
Part of his plan was to have a pool and spa built. In order to reduce the noise level, defendant wanted the equipment installed in an underground vault, which he’d seen done at other homes. He purchased a pre-engineered vault, which was installed by subcontractor. The home didn’t have natural gas, so defendant hired a plumbing subcontractor to run propane lines to the house and backyard. Defendant was responsible for obtaining all the appropriate permits, per the contract. This propane line was to run into the backyard to reach the pool heater. Common practice by the plumbing contractor was to warn homeowners about the danger of propane, particularly if it was used in a vault. However, employees couldn’t remember if they had actually done so.
About one year after the vault was installed, defendant hired plaintiff’s employer to build the pool and spa. Defendant was friends with the company president and had worked with him extensively in the past. Defendant told plaintiff’s employer he wanted the pool equipment installed in the vault underground. He didn’t know it was dangerous to install a propane heater underground. He obtained a permit for the work, but didn’t get a separate permit for the value or the propane line or request the county inspect the vault. Several employees of the pool subcontractor worked installing the propane heater in the vault. No one read the instruction manuals, which warned of risk of explosion if the heater is installed underground.
Plaintiff entered the vault and smelled gas. He exited, told a co-worker he was ready to turn the heater on. He was given the go-ahead. He went back down, turned the filter pump and heater on and started to climb out. There was an explosion. He was propelled in the air. He suffered severe burns, a back injury and other substantial injuries.
Plaintiff sued defendant homeowner for negligence and premises liability. He alleged the property owner negligently installed the underground vault and un-ventilated propane heater. Defendant knew or should have known this was dangerous.
At trial, jurors agreed with plaintiff.
On appeal, defendant argued plaintiff couldn’t sue him because plaintiff worked for an independent contractor, and that independent contractor assumed a legal duty to ensure the safety of its own employees. Subject to certain exceptions, general contractors can’t be found liable for injuries suffered by a subcontractor’s employees. One exception is when the general contractor retains control over the work but negligently exercises that control. Although defendant conceded this, he insisted he did not affirmatively contribute to the worker injury and thus should not be held liable. The appellate court, finding no reversible error, affirmed.
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Regalado v. Callaghan, Sept. 22, 2016, California Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, Division One
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