Court Limits Employer Liability for Workplace Safety of Independent Contractors

October 6, 2011  |  From HRCalifornia Extra

In an important ruling for employers, the California Supreme Court clarified an employer’s duty relating to workplace safety of independent contractors. The court held that an employer can delegate the duty to ensure the safety of the specific workplace that is the subject of the contract to the independent contractor.

The court also held that the employer will generally not be liable if one of the independent contractor’s workers is then hurt on the job. SeaBright v. US Airways US Airways, 52 Cal.4th 590 (2011).

Level of Responsibility

The case involved an airline that hired an independent contractor to maintain and repair a conveyor used to move to luggage.

US Airways uses a conveyor for luggage at San Francisco International Airport and is responsible for maintaining the conveyor. US Airways hired Lloyd W. Aubry Co. (Aubry) to maintain and repair the conveyor. Because Aubry was hired as an independent contractor, the airline did not direct Aubry’s work or direct airline employees to participate in Aubry’s work.

Aubry employed Anthony Verdon Lujan, who goes by the name Verdon. While performing an inspection of the conveyor, Verdon’s arm got caught in its moving parts. The conveyor lacked certain safety guards required by regulations.

Aubry’s workers’ compensation insurer, SeaBright Insurance, paid Verdon benefits based on his injury. SeaBright then sued US Airways, claiming the airline caused Verdon’s injury and seeking to recover what it paid in benefits. Verdon also sued US Airways for negligence.

SeaBright argued that US Airways was liable because of its obligations under Cal/OSHA to provide a "safe workplace." The issue was whether US Airways could delegate that obligation to its contractor, with respect to the safety of the contractor’s employees. The California Supreme Court held that it could.

The court noted that the general rule is that when employees of independent contractors are injured in the workplace, they cannot sue the person or entity that hired the contractor to do the work. Privette v. Superior Court, 5 Cal.4th 689 (1993)

The court held that when a company hires an independent contractor, the company delegates to the contractor any legal duty it owes to the contractor’s employees to ensure the safety of the specific workplace that is the subject of the contract.

The company which hired the independent contractor would face liability for the injury only if the company retained control over the independent contractor’s work and exercised control in a way that "affirmatively contributed" to the injury. Hooker v. Department of Transportation, 27 Cal. 4th 198 (2001)

The ruling does not change the fact that US Airways owes its own employees the duty to provide a safe workplace and that the airline cannot delegate that duty.

Best Practices

  • Clarify any duties and responsibilities that you are delegating to your independent contractor
  • Carefully describe in your independent contractor agreement who is responsible for duties such as workplace safety
  • Once you delegate those duties to your independent contractor, relinquish control
  • Exercising control over the work performed, including time and location, is one of the most common misclassification mistakes
  • If you continue to control how your independent contractor performs and handles its duties and responsibilities, you could be liable, regardless of what your written agreement says
​​​​