MAPC Publishes: California Supreme Court Expands Privette Doctrine to Benefit of Property Owners

In a win for property owners, the California Supreme Court found that property owners who hire contractors to work on their property, and who delegate the duty to the contractor to keep the jobsite safe, can be immune from suit from injured employees of the contractor, even where the injury was due to a failure by the owner to comply with a statutory duty to keep the premises safe. Thus, in Seabright Insurance Co. v. U.S. Airways, Inc., the Supreme Court held that U.S. Airways would not be liable to an employee of a subcontractor injured on U.S. Airways’ baggage handling equipment even though U.S. Airways had failed to maintain the equipment in compliance with California Occupation Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) regulations.

 Under a longstanding series of cases collectively called the Privette doctrine, the usual premises liability for property owners for injuries occurring on their property can be avoided where the injury occurs to an employee of a contractor who has been hired to perform work on the property and the contractor has assumed the duty to control the jobsite and keep it safe. Several exceptions to this general immunity have been carved out, including an exception for owners who affirmatively contribute to the employee’s injury.

 Prior California appellate cases found that the failure of an owner to fulfill a statutorily-mandated duty regarding safety, where such failure led to an injury, could be characterized as affirmatively contributing to the cause of injury, thus making the Privette doctrine immunity unavailable as a defense to the owner. Additionally, appellate courts have also found that there are certain duties of a property owner which cannot be delegated to a contractor, including certain safety requirements.

 U.S. Airways was obligated under OSHA regulations to have safety railing and other safeguards on its baggage handling system, which it failed to do. In fact, U.S. Airways expressly delegated to the contractor in question the duty to assess the safety of its baggage handling system and make necessary repairs and upgrades to the system to bring it into compliance with OSHA. It was during these repairs and upgrades that the contractor’s employee was injured.

 Although the intermediate appellate court found that the duty to maintain the system under OSHA regulations could not be delegated to the contractor, the Supreme Court disagreed. It found that the nondelegable duty under OSHA was, in this circumstance, to U.S. Airways’ own employees, not to employees of a third-party contractor, and that U.S. Airways could properly delegate the duty to upgrade the system to a contractor and further delegate the duty to keep the contractor’s employees safe to the contractor. In so finding, the Supreme Court found that U.S. Airways’ failure to adhere to OSHA regulations could not be a basis for finding that the Privette doctrine did not apply.

 In many instances, property owners, including businesses, rely upon the contractors they hire to control the methods by which the job will get done and make sure that employees follow all necessary safety protocols while doing the job. Property owners thus give up control of portions of their property to the contractor, and are at the contractor’s mercy if the contractor does not maintain a safe jobsite. The Privette doctrine mitigates the property owner’s lack of control, and the Seabright decision further protects property owners. Property owners are less likely after Seabright to be left wondering whether an overlooked statutory duty or regulation might cause liability to be imposed on the owner if a contractor’s employee is injured on the jobsite.

 Seabright Insurance Co. v. U.S. Airways, Inc. (2011) 52 Cal.4th 590

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