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re Privette and exceptions, Gonzalez v. Mathis, Blalock v. DMP 250 Newport Center, LLC

February 13, 2024 Blog,Eric Ganci

By Eric Ganci

Can a landowner be liable for a dangerous condition on her property, if she hires an independent contractor and one of those workers is injured on the landowner’s property?  

The answer can be (generally) no, the landowner is generally not liable. As the California Supreme Court explained in their 2021 decision Gonzalez v. Mathis, cited as 12 Cal.5th 29:  

“There is a strong presumption under California law that a hirer of an independent contractor delegates to the contractor all responsibility for workplace safety.” This is called the Privette Doctrine, from the 1993 case Privette v. Superior Court, cited as (1993) 5 Cal.4th 689.  

“This means that a hirer is typically not liable for injuries sustained by an independent contractor or its workers while on the job.”  

“[T]he presumption originally stemmed from the following rationales:  

  • First, hirers usually have no right to control an independent contractor’s work.  
  • Second, contractors can factor in ‘the cost of safety precautions and insurance coverage in the contract price.’ 
  • Third, contractors are able to obtain workers’ compensation to cover any on-the-job injuries.  
  • Finally, contractors are typically hired for their expertise, which enables them to perform the contracted-for work safely and successfully.”  

However, we have two exceptions to the Privette Doctrine:  

First, in Hooker v. Department of Transportation (2002) 27 Cal.4th 198, the California Supreme Court “held that a hirer may be liable when it retains control over any part of the independent contractor’s work and negligently exercises that retained control in a manner that affirmatively contributes to the worker’s injury.” 

Second, in Kinsman v. Unocal Corp. (2005) 37 Cal.4th 659, the California Supreme Court “held that 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 California Supreme Court decided “whether a landowner may also be liable for injuries to an independent contractor or its workers that 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 held against that, saying this: “permitting liability under such circumstances, thereby creating a broad third exception to the Privette doctrine, would be fundamentally inconsistent with the doctrine.”  

Jumping forward a few years: the California Court of Appeal, Fourth District, recently decided Blalock v. DMP 250 Newport Center, LLC, cited as 2023 WL 4144812, which also addresses the Privette Doctrine and the possible Kinsman exception.  

In Blalock, an employee of independent contractor was injured after falling through an access panel in the floor of a crawl space of a landowner. The Employee brought suit against the landowner.  

The Court in Blalock also holds in favor of the landowner in affirm the summary judgment in favor of the landowner and against the injured employee hired by the independent contractor.  

The Court held:  

  1. The hazardous nature of a plywood access panel on the floor of a crawl space was not concealed from contractor, and  
  2. The landowner did not have a duty to inform contractor of the existence of the access panel. 

The Plaintiff argued there was improper lighting and the plywood was not affixed properly. And to that, the Court continued to hold in favor of the landowner in saying:  

“Inadequate lighting in the crawl space is the kind of known hazard that falls within that rule; it was [the Independent Contractor’s] responsibility to ensure the workspace was adequately lit to ensure worker safety. A reasonable inspection would have also revealed that the exposed plywood surface was attached to the bottom of the joists, rather than the top of them. The [the Independent Contractor’s] employees would thus have recognized the plywood functioned as part of the ceiling of the room below, rather than part of the floor of the crawl space.