In Gonzalez v. Mathis (2021 WL 3671594) (“Gonzalez”), the Supreme Court of California held that a landowner generally owes no duty to an independent contractor or its workers to remedy or adopt other measures to protect them against known hazards on the premises. The Court applied the Privette doctrine which establishes a presumption that a landowner generally delegates all responsibility for workplace safety to its independent contractor. (See generally Privette v. Superior Court (1993) 5 Cal.4th 689; SeaBright Ins. Co. v. US Airways, Inc. (2011) 52 Cal.4th 590.) As such, the independent contractor is responsible for ensuring that the work can be performed safely despite a known hazard on the worksite, even where the contractor and its workers are unable to take any reasonable safety precautions to avoid or protect themselves from the known hazard.
In Gonzalez, the landowner, Mathis, had hired an independent contractor, Gonzalez, to clean a skylight on his roof. To access the skylight, Gonzalez needed to utilize a narrow path between the edge of the roof and a parapet wall. While walking along this path, Gonzalez slipped and fell to the ground, sustaining serious injuries. Gonzalez alleged this accident was caused by several dangerous conditions on the roof, including a slippery surface, a lack of tie-off points to attach a safety harness, and a lack of a guardrail. Gonzalez was aware of all of these hazards prior to the accident.
The trial court granted Mathis’ motion for summary, finding that Mathis owed no duty to Gonzalez pursuant to the Privette doctrine. The Court of Appeal reversed, holding that a landowner may be liable to an independent contractor or its workers for injuries resulting from known hazards when the landowner exposes them to a known hazard that cannot be remedied through reasonable safety precautions. The Court of Appeal additionally held that summary judgment was improper because there were disputed issues of material fact as to whether Gonzalez could have taken such precautions.
The California Supreme Court reversed and upheld the trial court’s ruling, declining to create a new exception to the Privette doctrine in this situation. The Court’s holding is grounded in Privette’s strong presumption in favor of delegation. Because the hirer presumptively delegates to the independent contractor the authority to determine the manner in which the work is to be performed, the contractor also assumes the responsibility to ensure that the worksite is safe, and the work is performed safely. The Court’s holding is also consistent with the rationale behind Privette and its progeny, as independent contractors can typically factor the cost of added safety precautions or any increased safety risks into the contract price, and can purchase workers’ compensation to cover any injuries sustained while on the job. Notably, the Court’s analysis does not change even though Gonzalez did not have workers’ compensation coverage. The holding in Gonzalez also avoids the unfair “tort damages windfall” that would result from allowing independent contractors and their workers to obtain tort damages from the landowner while the landowner’s own employees are limited to workers’ compensation.
The Court emphasized that its holding does not apply to unknown and undiscoverable hazards; it is limited to hazards on the premises of which the independent contractor is aware or should reasonably detect. Gonzalez also does not address the situation in which a hazard is not located on or near the worksite or is unconnected to the independent contractor’s work on the premises.
Gonzalez is helpful because it clarifies that landowners do not have a responsibility to affirmatively assess workplace safety to determine whether their independent contractor is able to adopt reasonable safety precautions to protect against known hazards. Landowners are permitted to rely on the expertise of their independent contractors, as they are in a better position to determine whether they can protect themselves and their workers against a known hazard on the worksite and whether their work can be performed safely despite the hazard.