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Law bars employee of contractor from bringing personal injury suit

A California appellate court on Monday ruled that a state presumption doctrine on who controls an employee’s work barred an injured worker from suing a company that contracted with his employer to perform work.

SMC Contracting Inc. hired Tyco Simplex Grinnell Inc. to install an automatic fire sprinkler system for a development in South Lake Tahoe. Tyco employee Tommy Ray McCullar arrived at work and found the floor covered in ice. While trying to use a ladder on the ice, Mr. McCullar slipped and suffered injuries, according to McCullar v. SMC Contracting Inc., filed in the Court of Appeal for the 3rd District of California in Sacramento.

Mr. McCullar filed suit against SMC, seeking damages. A trial court judge found the “Privette doctrine” applied and granted summary judgment for SMC. That doctrine is a presumption that a hirer of an independent contractor delegates to the contractor all responsibility for workplace safety.

In affirming, the appeals court explained the Privette doctrine is based on the idea that a hirer typically has no right to control the manner of a contractor’s work and hires a contractor precisely because of the contractor’s greater ability to perform the work safely and successfully.

“Although we accept, for purposes here, that SMC retained control over Tyco’s work, we are not persuaded that SMC negligently exercised its retained authority in a manner that affirmatively contributed to McCullar’s injuries,” the court said.

SMC’s conduct may have caused ice to form and required Tyco to take extra safety precautions to account for it, the court said, but “we conclude these facts are insufficient to show that SMC’s exercise of its retained control affirmatively contributed to McCullar’s injuries,” as he admitted he was aware of the ice before he suffered his injuries.

The court said Tyco not only had the authority to remove the ice, it had the responsibility to take the necessary precautions to protect its employees from any hazard posed by it. “Tyco did not exercise this responsibility to prevent McCullar’s injury,” the court said, and “McCullar cannot hold SMC responsible for Tyco’s own failure.”

This article was first published in Business Insurance.

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