Contractor Not Liable for Independent Contractor's Safety Failures

By Brendan J. Coughlin

Early November 2005, at San Francisco International Airport, mechanic Anthony Verdun pulled his injured arm from the moving parts of a baggage conveyor belt. The conveyor had no shields or cover, in alleged violation of Cal-OSHA regulations. Verdun was required to be in a tight, cramped space with little light to perform an inspection on the conveyor while it was in operation.

US Airways hired Verdun's employer, Lloyd W. Aubry Co., to maintain and repair the conveyor. US Airways claimed that it did not direct the work done on the baggage conveyor.

Verdun and SeaBright Insurance Company, his worker's compensation insurer, sued US Airways for his injuries and benefits paid. US Airways' motion for summary adjudication was granted, with the trial court finding that, because Verdun worked for an independent contractor, he could not sue the airline. The Court of Appeal reversed, stating that the safety violations alleged created a non-delegable duty of care on US Airways to provide a safe work environment that could not be passed on to Lloyd W. Aubry Co.

In SeaBright v. US Airways, Inc., (2011) 52 Cal.4th 590, the California Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeal. This new case affirms the line of cases in California holding that injured employees of independent contractors cannot sue those who contract with their employers. SeaBright expands this rule to include even those instances when the injury is caused by a failure to comply with workplace safety requirements.

Essentially, the Court stated that tort law duties owed under Cal-OSHA regulations to employees of an independent contractor are delegable when the duties arise from the contract with the independent contractor. The Court reasoned that the cost of worker's compensation coverage is incorporated into the contract price negotiated by the responsible employer.

As with any case involving independent contractors, a threshold question is the degree of control over the independent contractor and its employees. In this case, US Airways exerted little influence over how Lloyd W. Aubry Co. and its employees operated the baggage conveyor. Cases of this type are extremely fact-sensitive. The existence of a reasonable dispute as to who controls the employees would have rendered summary adjudication inappropriate.

The attorneys at Kring & Chung understand the important elements of independent contractor issues, and can knowledgeably assist with effective contract formation and safety regulation compliance. We are available to answer your questions.

Brendan J. Coughlin is an Associate with Kring & Chung, LLP's Irvine, CA office. He can be contacted at (949) 261-7700 or bcoughlin@kringandchung.com.

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