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California Supreme Court Grants H&L Petition For Review in Important Premises Liability Case

January 31, 2019

The Supreme Court has granted Horvitz & Levy’s petition for review on behalf of Qualcomm in an important case involving the scope of the Privette doctrine—a rule providing that property owners who hire an independent contractor implicitly delegate full responsibility for worksite safety to the contractor. The Supreme Court’s ruling in this case will determine the extent of liability faced by homeowners and business owners throughout the state who hire contractors to perform work that results in injuries to a contractor or contractor’s employee.

In Sandoval, the plaintiff was a subcontractor hired to assist an electrical contractor during an inspection of switchgear at a power plant on Qualcomm’s San Diego campus. Before the inspection, Qualcomm deenergized a circuit that was to be inspected. Other circuits in the room remained energized, but all energized circuits were safely enclosed by metal panels that were bolted into place at the time Qualcomm turned the switchgear room over to the contractor. During the inspection, the contractor removed one of the bolted-on panels—despite knowing that he was exposing an energized circuit and without advising either Qualcomm or the subcontractor that he had done so. The subcontractor then approached the live circuit and was injured by an arcflash.

A jury trial resulted in a verdict for the plaintiff, and the Court of Appeal affirmed the judgment, concluding that the Privette doctrine did not apply because Qualcom retained control over the premises. Although the Supreme Court held in Hooker v. Department of Transportation (2002) 27 Cal.4th 198 that the hirer of a contractor cannot be liable on a retained control theory unless the hirer “affirmatively contributed” to a worker’s injuries, the Court of Appeal held that Qualcomm could be liable merely because it failed to ensure that Sandoval was aware which circuits in the switchgear were energized. The Court of Appeal also held it was not necessary for the trial court to instruct the jury on Hooker’s affirmative contribution requirement.

Horvitz & Levy represented Qualcomm in the Court of Appeal and filed the petition for review on its behalf. Of the ten cases in which the Supreme Court has considered the scope of the Privette doctrine over the past 25 years, Horvitz & Levy has appeared, either on behalf of defendants or their amici, in seven of these cases.

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