Menu Close

Despite the prevalence of “do-it-yourself” manuals and television shows, most homeowners eventually decide that some home repairs or maintenance would best be done by hiring someone to do the work. Inevitably, some workers are injured. There are sometimes confusing rules about when a homeowner is liable for injuries to workers on the property, either in tort or under the workers’ compensation system.

The common questions include whether the person hired by the homeowner was (1) required to be a licensed professional to do the work, and (2) if so, whether the person had the required license. The Court of Appeal in the published case of Jones v Sorenson was required to sort through these questions.

Homeowner Danita Sorenson hired “Odette Miranda dba Designs by Leo” to trim and cut trees on Sorenson’s property, and Miranda hired Jones to help her. Miranda had done landscaping work for Sorenson for 13 or 14 years, including weeding, trimming, maintaining a front-yard pond, and so forth. Miranda did not routinely use a ladder. Miranda was not licensed or insured.

Jones worked as a helper for Miranda about twice a year, and Miranda paid Jones. Jones had worked at Sorenson’s property four times, and once she had trimmed trees from the ground. This time Jones used a small ladder and a larger pole ladder to prune lilacs and remove plums from a tree. While trimming and cutting a tree over 15 feet tall, and while using a ladder provided by Miranda, Jones fell and was hurt.

Jones’s claim for workers compensation benefits was denied by Sorenson’s homeowner’s insurance carrier because Jones had not satisfied statutory minimum work requirements under the Labor Code.

Miranda was allegedly negligent in various ways (failure to train, supervise, provide proper equipment, etc.), but because Miranda was an unlicensed contractor, Sorenson was deemed by law to be Miranda’s employer. Therefore, Sorenson was liable for Miranda’s negligence on a respondeat superior theory, i.e., Miranda’s negligence was imputable to defendant.

The trial court ruled in effect that the terms “gardener” and “nurseryperson” as used in Business and Professions Code section 7026.1 were synonymous, and therefore Sorenson could avoid tort liability because a person acting as a nurseryperson may trim trees 15 feet tall or higher without a contractor’s license, although a gardener cannot. Summary judgment was granted dismissing the case. Jones appealed, and the Court of Appeal reversed in the published case.

As stated by our Supreme Court, “It is doubtful the average homeowner realizes tree trimming can require a contractor’s license.” (Fernandez v. Lawson (2003) 31 Cal.4th 31, 37.

The relevant statute, which distinguishes between a “gardener” and a “nurseryperson”; the latter refers to a licensed operator of a nursery, whereas a gardener does not require a license. There is no evidence that the gardener Sorenson hired was also a nurseryperson. This means Sorenson–the movant on summary judgment–has not refuted the claim that she was the gardener’s (and therefore Jones’s) employer, and potentially liable under a respondeat superior theory for the gardener’s alleged negligence.