California Supreme Court Limits Employer Liability to IC's Employees

Typically, when an organization hires a vendor / independent contractor, the hiring organization is not liable to the vendor's employees when something goes wrong. The vendor/contractor is the "employer" responsible to its own employees.

As explained by the California  Supreme Court:

Defendant US Airways uses a conveyor to move luggage at San Francisco International Airport. The airport is the actual owner of the conveyor, but US Airways uses it under a permit and has responsibility for its maintenance. US Airways hired independent contractor Lloyd W. Aubry Co. to maintain and repair the conveyor; the airline neither directed nor had its employees participate in Aubry‘s work.

The conveyor lacked certain safety guards required by applicable regulations. Anthony Verdon Lujan, who goes by the name Verdon, was inspecting the conveyor as an employee of Aubry, and his arm got caught in its moving parts.

Plaintiff SeaBright Insurance Company, Aubry‘s workers‘ compensation insurer, paid Verdon benefits based on the injury and then sued defendant US Airways, claiming the airline caused Verdon‘s injury and seeking to recover what it paid in benefits. Verdon intervened as a plaintiff in the action, alleging causes of action for negligence and premises liability.

Of special relevance to this case, the insurance company argued that US Airways was liable because of its obligations under CalOSHA to provide a "safe workplace." The issue was whether US Airways could delegate the duty to provide a safe workplace to its contractor, with respect to the safety of the contractor's employees.

Was US Airways liable for the injury to Verdon, even though Aubry was Verdon's employer and Verdon was covered by Workers' Compensation Insurance?  Hmmm?  Heck I don't know, I was asking you.

Oh, right the California Supreme Court knows. And the Court said:
plaintiffs here cannot recover in tort from defendant US Airways on a theory that employee Verdon‘s workplace injury resulted from defendant‘s breach of what plaintiffs describe as a nondelegable duty under Cal-OSHA regulations to provide safety guards on the conveyor. Hence, the Court of Appeal erred in reversing the trial court‘s grant of summary judgment for defendant.
The court emphasized that US Airways owed its own employees a non-delegable duty to provide a safe workplace. But Verdon, an employee of Aubry, could not look to US Airways for relief.

The decision is Seabright Ins. Co. v. US Airways and the opinion is here.