California Court: Workers’ Comp Doesn’t Bar Independent Contractor’s Claim

December 9, 2008

Workers’ compensation does not bar a worker injured at a construction site from bringing a tort claim when the worker is an independent contractor, the California Court of Appeal has ruled.

According to court documents in Jeffrey Tverberg et al. v. Fillner Construction Inc., Filner was a general contractor on a gas station project in 2006. He contracted with Lane Supply, which hired Perry Construction Inc. to install a canopy at the construction site. Perry hired the plaintiff to erect the canopy. While doing so, Tverberg fell into a hole at the construction site, which resulted in physical and emotional injuries. He said the injuries affected his relationship with his wife, Catherine Tverberg.

As a result, the Tverbergs filed a personal injury action against Fillner and Perry, alleging causes of action for negligence and premises liability.

Fillner moved for summary judgment, alleging that it owed no duty of care to the Tverbergs. The Tverbergs opposed the motion.

After a hearing, “the trial court granted the motion for summary judgment, finding that Fillner owed the Tverbergs no duty of care because it did not affirmatively contribute to Jeffrey Tverberg’s injuries,” court documents state.

The Tverbergs argued that case law in Privette v. Superior Court did not apply to them because Jeffrey was injured while working as an independent contractor, not an employee. In Privette, the California Supreme Court held that if the injured person is an employee of a negligent contractor, the employee is barred from obtaining recovery from the hirer of the contractor, because the employee’s injury is already compensable under the state’s workers’ compensation.

“The extension of a line of cases precluding an action by an employee who has an alternative remedy through the workers’ compensation system to an injured independent contractor who has no access to that system raises a significant issue of public policy,” the Supreme Court wrote. “After careful consideration, we find the Tverbergs’ reasoning to be persuasive.”

“Because Jeffrey Tverberg was not an employee of Perry, Privette and its progeny do not apply to bar him from being able to seek recovery from Fillner. For the same reasons that Privette does not bar Jeffrey Tverberg’s negligence and premises liability claims, Catherine Tverberg’s loss of consortium claim also withstands Fillner’s motion for summary judgment. As Fillner has not established its right to summary as a matter of law, the trial court’s judgment must be reversed,” the high court wrote.

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