Under California law, a strong presumption exists that a general contractor that hires an independent subcontractor delegates to the subcontractor all responsibility for workplace safety and is not liable for injuries sustained by the subcontractor or its workers while on the job. This is known as the Privette Doctrine, based on the California Supreme Court decision that first announced this principle in 1993.
In the case at hand, a general contractor hired an alarm company to install an automatic fire sprinkler system for a development in South Lake Tahoe, Calif. One day during the installation, an alarm company employee arrived at work and found the floor covered in ice. While trying to use a ladder on the ice, the employee slipped and suffered injuries. The employee filed suit against the general contractor.
The trial court, relying on the Privette Doctrine, granted summary judgment in the general contractor’s favor. Challenging this decision on appeal, the employee contended that the Privette Doctrine does not protect the general contractor because the general contractor retained control over the alarm company’s work and negligently exercised this control in a way that affirmatively contributed to his injuries. That is so, the employee reasoned, because the general contractor caused the ice to form on the floor and then told him to go back to work — after he notified the general contractor about the ice.
Based on the Privette Doctrine, and because the employee failed to raise a triable issue of material fact, the court affirmed.
The alarm company was one of the subcontractors of the general contractor and was hired to install an automatic fire sprinkler system for the project. Under the parties’ agreement, the alarm company agreed to “immediately correct any and all unsafe acts or conditions that are brought to (not too) its attention.” And “to comply with all specific safety requirements promulgated by any governmental authority, including, without limitation, the requirements of the applicable state and federal Occupational Safety Health Act.”
The alarm company was one of the subcontractors of the contractor and was hired to install an automatic fire sprinkler system for the project.
The alarm company also agreed to “conform to the safety policy of the contractor.” The general contractor’s safety policy stated, among other things, that “(s)ubcontractor supervisory personnel will review each work area prior to commencing work.” The policy added that subcontractors must provide a safety orientation for their employees, which must include the following instruction: “Don’t work unsafely or in unsafe environment. Tell foreman.”
The court went on to point out that it is the subcontractor’s responsibility, not the general contractor’s responsibility, to take the necessary precautions to protect its employees from a known workplace hazard. And should the subcontractor fail to take the necessary precautions, as the subcontractor did in this case, its employees cannot fault the hirer for the subcontractor’s own failure.
The court then concluded that the subcontractor not only had the authority to remove the ice, it also had the responsibility to take the necessary precautions to protect its employees from any hazard posed by the ice.
In sum, the court pointed out that under the Supreme Court’s Privette Doctrine line of cases, the defendant delegated all responsibility for workplace safety to the subcontractor. This delegation included the responsibility to insure that the subcontractor’s workers would be able to perform their work safely despite the known presence of ice that increased the risk of fall.
The court therefore affirmed the judgment of the lower court.