Blackwell v. Vasilas – Work Injury and Third-Party Lawsuits

When someone suffers a work-related injury, the first -but often not only – option is workers’ compensation. This is available to employees whose employers have secured the legally-required insurance coverage and who can show the injury occurred in the course and scope of employment – regardless of fault. scaffold

Another type of compensation that can be pursued by injured workers in some cases is third party liability lawsuits. We see this a lot in construction worker injuries, where the entity that owns the property is different from the general contractor who is separate from the subcontractors doing the work who are separate from others who may be on the site.

This is what was alleged in Blackwell v. Vasilas, recently before the California Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, Division One. 

Plaintiff filed a complaint alleging that in June 2013, he was working at the top of a ladder, installing rain gutters at an investment property that was owned by defendant. From the ladder, plaintiff stepped onto scaffolding set up nearby. That scaffolding had been erected by another contractor at the site.

The scaffolding collapsed. Plaintiff fell, sustaining injuries as he landed on a pile of bricks some 10 feet below.

Plaintiff filed a lawsuit against the defendant. The main enterprise for defendant is to buy real estate in residential areas, renovate and improve it and then resell it – a process sometimes known as “flipping.” Although defendant sometimes performs the minor work himself, he’s not a license contractor so he relies on the experience and expertise of others when performing work that is extensive or especially hazardous.

Defendant stated that when he hires contractors, he schedules the work, but does not assist with, oversee or participate in the work. He also stated he does not involve himself in on-the-job safety.

Plaintiff was employed by the rain gutter contractor, who did supervise the work. Another contractor was hired by defendant to do stucco work. It was that contractor who erected the scaffolding, but he was not a named defendant in the case.

Plaintiff got to the site with all of his own tools, equipment and supplies for the rain gutter job. Plaintiff saw the scaffolding and stated he thought it looked safe, but conceded he doesn’t know much about scaffolding.

After his injury, plaintiff alleged the property owner was negligent.

Defendant asserted he owed no duty to the contractor’s employee. He argued the action was precluded under the peculiar risk doctrine and also under premises liability laws because plaintiff had actual or constructive knowledge the scaffolding was dangerous – so he didn’t have to warn him of a potentially dangerous condition on the site.

Plaintiff asserted defendant owed a duty to provide a safe workplace, and he failed to do this because the gutter contractor for whom he worked was unlicensed, which meant the contractor was actually an employee and the concept of respondeat superior applied (holding employer accountable for actions of employees).

Defense retorted plaintiff hadn’t produced evidence that the scaffolding collapsed as a result of negligence or that an unlicensed contractor could be treated as the hirer’s employee.

Trial court granted summary judgment to defense, citing plaintiff’s lack of evidence and no evidence that plaintiff’s employer was defendant’s employee for purposes of respondeat superior.

The appeals court reversed.

Cited in the decision was the state labor code, which indicates specifically that unlicensed contractors are the hirer’s employees as a matter of law. Based on this theory, plaintiff asserts defendant owed him a number of duties of care. The appeals court agreed, and the case was remanded for further consideration by the trial court.

It’s worth noting that third-party litigation could have an impact on your workers’ compensation case. Best to discuss these issues with an attorney familiar with both types of claims.

If you have been injured at work, contact the Lee Law Offices at 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:

Blackwell v. Vasilas, Jan. 26, 2016, California Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, Division One

More Blog Entries:

Russell v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. – SC Appeals Court Favors Workers’ Comp Plaintiff, Jan. 28, 2016, South Carolina Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Blog

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