When an employer in California hires an independent contractor, what duty, if any, does the hirer owe to the contractor’s employee injured on the job? That is what the state’s Supreme Court explored in the case of Seabright Insurance Co. v. US Airways. Its verdict? When an employee of an independent contractor is injured due to the failure of the independent contractor to comply with workplace safety requirements, liability for the injury lies with the employee’s employer (i.e., the independent contractor), and not the entity engaging the services of the contractor.
US Airways uses a conveyor to move passenger luggage. While the airport owns the conveyor, US Airways has a permit to use it and is responsible for its maintenance. US Airways hired independent contractor Lloyd W. Aubry Co. to maintain and repair the conveyor. An Aubry employee, Anthony Verdon Lujan, who goes by the name Verdon, was inspecting the conveyor when his arm was caught in the moving parts.
The conveyor did not have certain safety guards that were required by applicable regulations. Aubry’s workers’ compensation insurer, SeaBright Insurance Co., paid Verdon’s benefits based on his injury and then sued US Airways, claiming the airline caused Verdon’s injury and seeking to recover what it paid in benefits.
The trial court granted summary judgment to the airline and an appellate court reversed that decision. The issue addressed by the California Supreme Court was whether the airline could, and did, delegate to the independent contractor any duty it owed to the contractor's employees to comply with safety requirements under Cal-OSHA.
The court held that a company hiring an independent contractor “presumptively delegates to that contractor its tort law duty to provide a safe workplace for its own employees.” The court went on to address the non-delegable duties doctrine, and held that the doctrine was inapplicable.
While the airline had a non-delegable duty to provide a safe workplace for its own employees, it did not have such a duty with respect to the independent contractor's employees — the independent contractor had that duty. The court thus found that the initial summary judgment for the airline was appropriate.
Employers, whether they are independent contractors retained to perform services for another person, or the party engaging the services of an independent contractor, should pay close attention to the court’s rationale in the Seabright case.
Parties who are contracting work between each other should discuss the delegation of duties and responsibilities regarding the other’s workers, including responsibilities for workplace safety under state and federal statutes. The division of duties and responsibilities between the entities, both in the manner in which work is to be completed and who will — and who will not — be directing the employees actually performing the contracted-for services should be clearly delineated in a written agreement.