Menu Close

Bernardino Mejia-Gutierrez began working for AC Square in 2001. AC Square was hired by Comcast to install, maintain, repair, and replace cable utility lines (drop lines), which run from a utility pole to a customer’s building. On the day of his accident, Mejia-Gutierrez was at the jobsite and had already determined that he would use a ladder rather than a bucket truck to do the job To replace the drop line, Mejia-Gutierrez hung his ladder from the mid-span wire. After he ascended the ladder, the wire he was going to replace snapped where there was a knot in it, which made the ladder rock back and forth. Then another wire, which was attached to an adjacent house, snapped, which made the ladder rock even more. Mejia-Gutierrez lost his balance and fell some 26 feet to the ground. As a result of the injuries he sustained in the fall, Mejia-Gutierrez received workers’ compensation benefits from Seabright Insurance Company..

Seabright Insurance Company intervened in a negligence action brought by Bernardino Mejia-Gutierrez and his wife Elvira Vasquez against Comcast of California III, Inc. for on-the-job injuries Mejia-Gutierrez sustained while working for AC Square, a cable company hired as a subcontractor by Comcast. On March 18, 2010, Vasquez dismissed her claim and, on April 5, 2011, Mejia-Gutierrez dismissed his claim with prejudice. At that point, Seabright was the only remaining plaintiff in the case.

On April 13, 2011, Comcast filed a motion for summary judgment. On June 12, 2011, the trial court granted Comcast’s summary judgment motion, ruling that Seabright had not raised a triable issue of material fact as to Comcast “either having negligently exercised retained control, or having breached a relevant non-delegable duty.” Seabright appealed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Comcast. The Court of Appeal sustained the judgment in favor of Comcast in the unpublished decision of Bernardo Mejia-Gutierrez v Comcast of California.

Under the peculiar risk doctrine, a person who hires an independent contractor to perform work that is inherently dangerous can be held liable for tort damages when the contractor’s negligent performance of the work causes injuries to others. In Privette v. Superior Court (1993) 5 Cal.4th 689, 691, the California Supreme Court for the first time addressed the potential conflict between the peculiar risk doctrine, as applied in favor of the contractor’s employees, and the system of workers’ compensation. “When an employee of the independent contractor hired to do dangerous work suffers a work-related injury, the employee is entitled to recovery under the state’s workers’ compensation system. That statutory scheme, which affords compensation regardless of fault, advances the same policies that underlie the doctrine of peculiar risk. Thus, when the contractor’s failure to provide safe working conditions results in injury to the contractor’s employee, additional recovery from the person who hired the contractor – a nonnegligent party – advances no societal interest that is not already served by the workers’ compensation system.” The Court therefore joined “the majority of jurisdictions in precluding such recovery under the doctrine of peculiar risk.”

Our Supreme Court further developed the principles discussed in Privette and Toland in Hooker v. Department of Transportation (2002) 27 Cal.4th 198, 202 (Hooker), holding that an independent contractor’s employee can recover in tort from the contractor’s hirer if the hirer retained control of safety conditions at a worksite and its negligent exercise of that retained control “affirmatively contributed to the employee’s injuries.”

In sum, the Privette line of cases “establishes that an independent contractor’s hirer presumptively delegates to that contractor its tort law duty to provide a safe workplace for the contractor’s employees.”

In the present case, Seabright contends the evidence raised triable issues of material fact as to whether Comcast retained control of the jobsite and affirmatively contributed to Mejia-Gutierrez’s injuries. It also contends the evidence raised a triable issue of material fact as to whether Comcast breached a nondelegable regulatory duty to provide Mejia-Gutierrez with a safe workplace.

The Court conclude that, regardless of whether there were problems with either of the wires that snapped, such as crystallization or a knot, which played a part in its snapping, the general duty of rule to “frequently and thoroughly” inspect lines to ensure they are in good condition – is not a basis for holding Comcast liable for Mejia-Gutierrez’s injuries. This is particularly so, given that Mejia-Gutierrez, on behalf of AC Square, was specifically responsible for discerning and addressing problems with drop lines and ensuing job site safety.