Menu Close

Earlier this summer, the California Supreme Court declined to add a third exception to the Privette rule, and thus reversed the Court of Appeal n the case of Gonzalez v Mathis. A month later, it reviewed the rule once again, and reversed a multi-million dollar jury verdict against Qualcomm.

In this new case, Qualcomm planned to upgrade its onsite turbine generators at its San Diego campus in 2013. In order to accommodate this upgrade, Qualcomm hired TransPower Testing, Inc., an electrical engineering service company, to inspect and verify the amperage capacity of Qualcomm’s existing switchgear equipment.

Frank Sharghi, TransPower’s president, is a licensed electrical engineer and had worked on that switchgear at least monthly for nearly 20 years, since before Qualcomm acquired the campus.

After Sharghi was unable to locate some of the busbars in the “main cogen: circuit during one inspection, Sharghi hired Jose M Sandoval – an electrical parts supply and repair specialist with ROS Electrical Supply & Equipment – to accompany him at a second inspection.

For this second inspection, Qualcomm approved a scope of work authorizing TransPower to inspect the main cogen circuit from the front and back.On the morning of the second inspection, the team attended a safety briefing led by Qualcomm plant operator, and the team was reminded that some circuits in the switchgear would remain live.

At some point during this inspection, Sandoval walked away from the rest of the TransPower team. Sandoval would later recall that he was having trouble judging the size of some of the main cogen busbars from the front side of the cabinet, and he thought he might be able to get a better view from the back.

Sandoval asked a fellow worker to hold a flashlight as they both approached the back side of the cabinets. Sandoval was holding a metal tape measure which triggered an arc flash from the live, exposed circuit. The 4,160-volt arc flash – thousands of degrees in temperature – had set him aflame, and he suffered serious injury.

Sandoval filed suit against Qualcomm, TransPower, and ROS Electrical Supply, asserting claims for negligence and premises liability. Qualcomm moved for summary judgment on the basis that the presumption of delegation should shield it from liability here. Denying the motion, the trial court proceeded to trial, and a jury awarded Sandoval over $1 million in past and future medical expenses and $6 million in noneconomic damages. It apportioned the fault 46 percent to Qualcomm, 45 percent to TransPower, and 9 percent to Sandoval.

The Court of Appeal affirmed. However the California Supreme Court reversed in the case of Sandoval v Qualcomm.

Strong public policy considerations readily acknowledged in our past decisions generally support a straightforward presumption about the responsibilities of hirers and contractors for worker injuries in situations like this: A person or entity hiring an independent contractor (a “hirer”) ordinarily delegates to that independent contractor all responsibility for the safety of the contractor’s workers.”

“This presumption is rooted in hirers’ reasons for employing contractors in the first place, and society’s need for clear rules about who’s responsible for avoiding harms to workers when contractors are hired.”

Thus the Supreme Court concluded “that defendant Qualcomm Incorporated, the hirer in this case, owed no tort duty to plaintiff Martin Sandoval, the parts specialist working for Qualcomm’s contractor, at the time of Sandoval’s injuries.”