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The 1993 case which created the “Privette” doctrine, set forth a strong presumption under California law that a hirer of an independent contractor delegates to the contractor all responsibility for workplace safety. This means that a hirer is typically not liable for injuries sustained by an independent contractor or its workers while on the job.

One of the three rationales for this doctrine is that contractors are able to obtain workers’ compensation to cover any on-the-job injuries.

Courts have nevertheless identified two limited circumstances in which the presumption is overcome.

First, in Hooker v. Department of Transportation (2002) 27 Cal.4th 198 (Hooker), it was held that a hirer may be liable when it retains control over any part of the independent contractor’s work and negligently exercises that retained control in a manner that affirmatively contributes to the worker’s injury.

Second, in Kinsman v. Unocal Corp. (2005) 37 Cal.4th 659 (Kinsman), it was held that a landowner who hires an independent contractor may be liable if the landowner knew, or should have known, of a concealed hazard on the property that the contractor did not know of and could not have reasonably discovered, and the landowner failed to warn the contractor of the hazard.

In the present case before the Supreme Court, defendant John Mathis lives in a one-story house with a flat, sand-and-gravel roof. The roof contains a large skylight covering an indoor pool. Plaintiff Luis Gonzalez is a professional window washer who first started cleaning Mathis’s skylight in the 1990s as an employee of Beverly Hills Window Cleaning. In the mid-2000s, Gonzalez started his own professional window washing company. He was injured in a slip and fall accident while walking on Mathis’s roof.

Gonzalez filed suit against Mathis claiming the roof was slippery, with no tie-off points to attach safety harnesses, and no safety walls. Gonzalez testified that he knew of these conditions that deteriorated over time. The trial court granted Mathis’s motion for summary judgment, finding that Mathis owed no duty to Gonzalez pursuant to the Privette doctrine.

The Court of Appeal reversed and in effect added a third exception to the Privette Doctrine.

The California Supreme Court declined to add a third exception and thus reversed the Court of Appeal n the case of Gonzalez v Mathis.

This case compelled the Supreme Court to answer a simple but important question: If there is a known hazard on a property that the independent contractor cannot remedy or protect against through the adoption of reasonable safety precautions, and the contractor or one of its workers is injured after proceeding to do the work anyway, is the landowner liable to the contractor in tort?

The Court concluded that, pursuant to Privette’s strong presumption that a hirer delegates to an independent contractor all responsibility for workplace safety, a landowner owes no duty to the contractor or its workers to remedy a known hazard on the premises or take other measures that might provide protection against the hazard.