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When a California Property Owner Is Liable For Construction Injuries – The Rules regarding Licensed Contractors and Employees

California Homeowners and Commercial Property Owners often hire contractors to do repairs, remodeling, or new additions to their structures. Most know to make sure that the person or company they hire is a licensed contractor (though you should not rely solely on the contractor’s state license board website). But experienced Sacramento and El Dorado real estate and construction lawyers are often asked about, defend lawsuits, concerning injuries related to the construction project.

The recent California decision in Gravelin v. Satterfield reviewed the rules in contractor construction injuries. The homeowner was having Dish Network install a satellite dish for their service. The network hired an independent contractor (though he might have been Disk’s employee with the same result) to install the dish. The contractor went to the house, but only brought his short ladder, and left the long one at the shop. He could not access the roof proper, but could reach a small roof extension between the house and carport. The extension was added to the house after it was completed as a rain cover for walking to the car. The roof extension collapsed, and the installer was injured. He sued the homeowner.

chimney_on_roof.jpgThe Rule
The Court set out the basic rule: When the employees of independent contractors are injured in the workplace, they cannot sue the party that hired the contractor to do the work. The reason is that the independent contractor has authority to determine the manner in which what may be dangerous work is to be performed, and thus assumes responsibility for taking workplace precautions. For this reason the hirer is not vicariously liable for injuries due to the contractor’s negligence.

The Exception
The court did note an exception to the rule: where the owner or occupier of the land is aware of a concealed dangerous condition and is aware that the contractor may be exposed to it, he may have an obligation to warn the person coming onto the property. The test is-

1) knows or reasonably should know of a concealed hazard;
2) the contractor does not know and could not reasonably discover the condition;
3) the landowner fails to warn the contractor.

There is a limit to this exception, however; the contractor has a duty to generally inspect for concealed hazards, as the responsibility for job safety is his. For example, a roofing contractor has a duty to inspect the roof for structural defects, but not to inspect the walls.

In this case the court decided that the roof extension was not a pre-existing hazard. Its obvious purpose was a rain shelter. It only became hazardous when the installer misused it as a way to climb onto the roof. Thus, the installer could not make a claim against the homeowner. A different result may have been reached if, for example, the homeowner did some renovations in the attic that made it structurally unstable and did not warn the installer. This actually happens in Condos; people on the upper floor with attic access remodel the attic so that they have another usable room, harming the integrity of the structure.