United States: Vargas: The Next Step In The ‘Peculiar' Evolution

In the recent decision Vargas v. FMI, Inc. (2015) 233 Cal.App.4th 638, plaintiff Vargas and Villalobos were a two-man team driving a tractor-trailer cross country. Shortly into the journey, with Villalobos driving and plaintiff asleep in the sleeper berth, Villalobos fell asleep at the wheel and the tractor-trailer rolled over, injuring plaintiff. Plaintiff sued (1) the motor carrier and trailer owner, (2) the tractor owner, (3) the tractor owner's principal, and (4) Villalobos. The trial court granted the motor carrier's/trailer owner's motion for summary judgment on the grounds that it was not vicariously liable for plaintiff's injuries as the hirer of an independent contractor, pursuant to Privette v. Sup. Ct. (1993) 5 Cal.4th 689, and its progeny, including SeaBright Ins. Co. v. US Airways, Inc. (2011) 52 Cal.4th 590, which recognized that there was an implied and presumed delegation of workplace safety in contracts entered into between hirers and independent contractors, which in turn meant that the hirer would not be vicariously liable for injuries to independent contractors' employees, unless certain factors were present as outlined by the Privette line of cases.

Plaintiff appealed on the grounds that as a federally-licensed motor carrier, the motor carrier/trailer owner had a non-delegable duty of care to plaintiff and was vicariously liable for Villalobos' negligence. The Court of Appeal reversed, holding that "[a]lthough SeaBright holds that a hirer presumptively delegates to an independent contractor any tort law duties it owes to the contractor's employees to ensure workplace safety, it says that the presumption may be overcome if 'the relevant statutes or regulations indicate an intent to limit the application of Privette, supra, 5 Cal.4th 689, or preclude delegation of the tort law duty, if any, that the hirer owes to the contractor's employees.'" (Vargas, supra, 233 Cal.App. 4th at p. 654.) Thus, Vargas held that the proper analysis of SeaBright, and thus the Privette line of cases, involves "review [of] the pertinent statutes and regulations to determine whether they preclude the applicability of the Privette doctrine and prohibit delegation of the hirer's tort law duty in the particular case...."

Ultimately, the Vargas court held that the Federal Motor Carrier Act indicated an intent to preclude delegation of the tort law duty that motor carriers owe to independent-contractor drivers, resulting in the motor carrier/trailer having vicariously liability for injuries to the independent contractor driver.

Thus, it appears that the "take away" from SeaBright, as clarified and distinguished by Vargas, is that Plaintiff has the burden of presenting evidence that: (1) the hirer of an independent contractor affirmatively contributed to the employee's injuries through (a) selecting or supplying unsafe equipment that the independent contractor used, (b) selecting the materials out of which the unsafe equipment was made, or (c) exercising active control over the employees or operations of the independent contractor (see McKown v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. (2002) 27 Cal. 4th 219); and if there is an alleged statutory or regulatory violation, (2) that the relevant statute(s) or regulation(s) indicate(s) an intent to limit the application of Privette, and/or preclude delegation of the tort law duty, if any, that the hirer owes to the contractor's employees. (See Vargas, supra, 233 Cal.App.4th at pg. 654.) This analysis applies equally to injuries to the independent contractor as well, rather then merely its employees. (Michael v. Denbeste Transportation, Inc. (2006) 137 Cal.App.4th 1082.)

Conversely, the hirer of an independent contractor should attempt to establish evidence that it did not affirmatively contribute to the employee's injuries as articulated by McKown, and if there is an alleged statutory or regulatory violation, the relevant statutes or regulations do not indicate an intent to limit the application of Privette, or preclude delegation of the tort law duty that the hirer owes to the contractor's employees.

With respect to landowners or those who exercise control over land, Plaintiff has the burden of presenting evidence that either: (1) the landowner affirmatively contributed to plaintiff's injuries as articulated by McKown or (2) (a) the landowner knew or should have known of a latent hazardous condition on its property, (b) the independent contractor did not know or could not have reasonably discovered the hazardous condition, and (c) the landowner failed to warn the independent contractor relative to the same. (See Kinsman v. Unocal Corp. (2005) 37 Cal.4th 659.) Additionally, if there is an alleged statutory or regulatory violation, Plaintiff must establish that the relevant statutes or regulations indicate an intent to limit the application of Privette, and/or preclude delegation of the tort law duty, if any, that the landowner owes to the independent contractor's employees.

Conversely, the landowner should attempt to establish evidence that (1) it did not affirmatively contribute to the employee's injuries as articulated by McKown, and one or more of the following factors: (a) it did not know or have reason to know of a latent hazardous condition on its property, (b) the independent contractor knew or could have reasonably discovered the hazardous condition, or (c) the landowner warned the independent contractor relative to the same. Likewise, if there is an alleged statutory or regulatory violation, the landowner should attempt to establish that the relevant statute or regulation does not indicate an intent to limit the application of Privette, or preclude delegation of the tort law duty that the landowner owes to the independent contractor's employees.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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