California Appeals Court Holds Defendant Building Owners Not Responsible for Attack On Building Manager

The sole proprietor of a property management company, independent contractor plaintiff, was assaulted by two young men while on the premises of an apartment building he managed for the owner, defendant Kavian LLC. He sued the defendant and its two co-managing members (Mr. H.) for negligence and breach of contract. This blog post will focus solely on the negligence issue.At trial, the plaintiff alleged that the defendants were negligent in urging plaintiff to return to the property after an earlier disturbance and failing to provide a safe working environment. The trial court sustained demurrers by Mr. H., and granted defendant Kavian LLC’s motion for summary judgment. Plaintiff appealed the latter ruling, and the Second District Court of Appeals affirmed.

On appeal, the plaintiff’s first argument was that he was never the employee of an independent contractor, and therefore was not barred from relief under Privette v. Superior Court (1993). The appeals court held that he was incorrect.

The Privette court held that “the hirer of an independent contractor is not vicariously liable to the contractor’s employee who sustains on-the-job injuries resulting from a special or peculiar risk inherent in the work.” The court had also previously held in Tverberg v. Fillner Construction Co. (2010), that unlike a standard employee, an independent contractor has the power to determine the manner in which inherently dangerous construction work is to be performed, and thus assumes legal responsibility for carrying out the contracted work. Having assumed responsibility for workplace safety, an independent contractor may not hold a hiring party vicariously liable for injuries that resulted from the contractor’s own failure to effectively guard against risks inherent in the contracted work.

Plaintiff’s next argument relied on a belief that the Privette doctrine precluded vicarious liability of the hiring party, but did not operate to bar liability for the hirer’s own negligence—here, the act of instructing the plaintiff to cross paths with these dangerous individuals at the subject premises. The hirer should have been liable for his own negligence, the plaintiff argued.

But here, the court explained, the plaintiff presented no evidence that the defendants had prior knowledge of the two assailants’ prior records and abrasive characters, yet still failed to provide a safe work environment, or that the defendants maintained control over any safety conditions at the apartment building.

The defendant submitted evidence that Mr. H. had never met the attackers prior to this incident and had no reason to believe that the plaintiff or anyone else would be assaulted or injured by someone at the property on that date. The plaintiff presented no evidence to the contrary, and his own evidence demonstrated that he knew both assailants, and that both of them had always been respectful to the plaintiff in the past, so their behavior was extremely surprising to him. Unexpected.

The appeals court concluded that nothing in the plaintiff’s declaration or deposition testimony supported the notion that the defendant, who visited the apartment building once every two or three months, “retained control over safety conditions” or that the defendant knew of a dangerous condition on the property of which the plaintiff himself was unaware, or was otherwise directly liable for the plaintiff’s injuries. Summary judgment was therefore entirely proper, the appeals court held.

The premises liability lawyers at Neumann Law Group represent victims throughout the Los Angeles area. Call us at (213) 227-0001 for a free consultation.

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