Calif. Supreme Ct. Overturns $9M Jury Verdict in Favor of Contractor’s Injured Employee

By Jim Sams | September 10, 2021

The California Supreme Court on Thursday overturned a jury verdict that found Qualcomm Inc. liable for third-degree burns suffered by an employee of an electrical contractor who was hired to work on equipment at the company’s San Diego campus.

It was the second time within a month that the high court ruled unanimously against a worker hired as an independent contractor who sued a customer for injuries suffered at the job site.

“The plaintiff sustained atrocious injuries that could have been prevented,” the Supreme Court said in an opinion written by Associate Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar. “But a rule subjecting Qualcomm to tort liability merely for failing to prevent those injuries could easily lead to more, rather than fewer, injuries in future cases.”

The high court issued a similar ruling on Aug. 23 when it reversed a judgment in favor of a window-washer who was injured when he fell off a homeowner’s roof in Los Angeles. The court held that even though a hazardous condition on the roof contributed to the fall, the homeowner was not liable because the contractor was well aware of the unsafe condition.

The American Property Casualty Insurance Association, US Chamber of Commerce, Western States Petroleum Association and California Association of Realtors had filed amicus briefs in the Qualcomm case. The wireless technology company is one of San Diego County’s largest employers.

Attorney Colin Walshock with the Wingert Grebing Brubaker & Juskie law firm, which represented Qualcomm in the case, said a finding of liability would have actually made California workplaces less safe.

“A rule subjecting Qualcomm to tort liability merely for failing to prevent those injuries could easily lead to more, rather than fewer, injuries in future cases,” he said in an email. “For instance, making the hirer liable under the circumstances presented here might incentive hirers to impose and enforce requirements on their contractors that – owing to the hirer’s more limited expertise and experience – actually impede the contractor’s ability to do the job safely. Or it might discourage contractors from engaging more expert contractors at all.”

Jose Martin Sandoval sued Qualcomm and other defendants after suffering third-degree burns to a third of his body when he was struck by an arc flash from a circuit that he did not realize was live.

Qualcomm had hired TransPower Testing to inspect switchgear equipment as it prepared to upgrade onsite turbine generators that supplement the power supply to its plant. Transpower hired Sandoval, an electrical parts and repair specialist with ROS Electrical Supply & Equipment, to assist.

Qualcomm employees powered down the circuits that Transpower had been hired to inspect. During a safety briefing, Qualcomm’s plant operator told Transpower President Frank Sharghi, Sandoval and other employees that some circuits in the switchgear would remain live. Qualcomm removed the panels that protected the circuits that it had powered down, but left panels on the cabinets that contained circuits that would remain live.

After the briefing was concluded, however, Sharghi asked one of his employees to remove one of panels covering a live circuit so he could take photographs for a previous, unrelated inspection. Later, Sandoval attempted to measure equipment in the cabinet that contained the live circuit, unaware that power was still running through it.

His metal tape measure triggered an arc flash that burned his face, neck, torso and arms. He had to undergo several skin graft surgeries and was hospitalized for more than a month. The accident left him without full use of his left arm.

Sandoval filed suit against Qualcomm, TransPower and his employer. Qualcomm filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that it had delegated responsibility for safety to an independent contractor. The San Diego County Superior Court denied the motion.

A jury returned a special verdict finding Qualcomm liable because it had retained control over the safety conditions of the worksite and that its negligence was a substantial factor in causing Sandoval’s injuries. It awarded $7 million in damages and apportioned 46% of the fault to Qualcomm, 45% to TransPower and 9% to Sandoval.

Qualcomm appealed, but the 4th District Court of Appeal affirmed the verdict.

The Supreme Court said that in previous rulings create a presumption that a party who hires an independent contractor delegates to that contractor all responsibility for the safety of the contractor’s workers. A plaintiff can overcome that presumption if the hirer withholds critical safety information or retains control of activities directly related to the contracted work and uses that control in a way that contributes to the injury.

The court said the record shows that Qualcomm disclosed all concealed hazards to Transpower, leaving only the retained control exception in play.

Sandoval argued that Qualcomm took responsibility for the power-down procedure, so it was responsible for all power-related hazards. The Supreme Court disagreed.

“Once Qualcomm turned over control of the worksite, any tort duties Qualcomm had with respect to the safety of that site presumptively became TransPower’s duties,” the opinion says.

The court noted that Qualcomm had left the protective panels covering thelive circuits bolted on and did not ask Transpower to remove them. Holding a hirer liable in such circumstances may actually impede the contractor’s ability to do a job safely, or discourage hirers from engaging expert contractors at all, the court said.

“We retain here the balance struck in our past decisions recognizing a rule that hirers who fully and effectively delegate work to a contractor owe no tort duty to that contractor’s workers,” the opinion says.

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