Court: California Homeowners Not Liable for Tree Trimmer’s Death

August 8, 2008

A homeowner is not vicariously criminally liable for the misdemeanor acts of a tree trimmer, the California Supreme Court decided.

According to Maria Dolores Ramirez V. Thomas Nelson, a worker for an unlicensed contractor hired by homeowners Thomas and Vivian Nelson to trim trees at their residence was electrocuted when his polesaw came in contact with an overhead high voltage line.

The Nelsons had contracted Julian Rodriguez Landscape and Tree Service to “top” and trim several trees in their backyard. On Feb. 14, 2002, Rodriguez arrived at the Nelson’s home with four men, including Luis Flores, to trim the trees. The Nelsons neither supervised the trimming, nor did they furnish the tools for the job.

To trim a eucalyptus tree on the property, Flores used an aluminum and wooden polesaw, which he inadvertently touched to overhead powerlines and electrocuted himself. Thereafter, Flores’ family filed a complaint against the Nelsons, alleging negligence and wrongful death. The general negligence theory alleged that the Nelsons knew the high voltage lines were dangerous and that Rodriguez and his workers were unlicensed contractors, and “nonetheless negligently failed to warn or act as would reasonable homeowners under the circumstances in contracting with Rodriguez to trim the tree in question,” court documents state. The plaintiffs argued that unlicensed contractors who become injured on the job are employees of the party who hired them for purposes of establishing workers’ compensation benefit eligibility.

During pretrial motions, it was determined that workers ‘ comp laws were inapplicable to the case because the work was considered “household domestic service” not subject to regulation, and the decedent had not worked the required hours necessary for workers’ comp benefits.

Nevertheless, during the initial trial court hearing, the jury returned a verdict for the homeowners. However, the Court of Appeal reversed the decision, concluding that a duty of care supported the plaintiff’s negligence per se theory of liability if the decedent was the homeowners’ employee

However, the Supreme Court concluded that the Court of Appeal erred in its finding that the homeowners owed the decedent a special duty of care because it said an unlicensed contractor’s worker should not be deemed a homeowner’s employee.

“The Court of Appeal’s rationale effectively makes defendant homeowners vicariously liable in tort for the worker’s own negligent acts or omissions which themselves violated the statute and proximately caused his fatal injuries, without regard to the fact that the homeowners had no control over the manner in which either the hired contractor or his workers performed the job,” the high court wrote.

The case was remanded for further proceedings based on the reversal of the Court of Appeal decision.

Source: California Courts

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