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July 10, 2001
Calif. Ruling In Workers Comp Liability
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California, someone who hires a contractor to perform dangerous work is not liable if an employee of that contractor - covered by workers compensation - is hurt or killed on the job.

That was the unanimous ruling of California's Supreme Court last week.

The court said employees or their survivors in such situations can collect only workers' compensation benefits, even if the hirer failed to make sure the contractor was qualified for the work.

"The hirer should not have to pay for injuries caused by the contractor's negligent performance, because the workers' compensation system already covers those injuries," Justice Janice Rogers Brown wrote for the court.

The ruling resulted from a lawsuit brought by the widow and five children of Alberto Camargo, a laborer who died in a 1996 tractor accident in Kern County, Calif.

The Los Angeles Times reports that Eva Camargo and her family had sued Tjaarda Dairy on the grounds that it had negligently hired a contractor to remove manure. The suit charged that the dairy never determined whether Camargo was qualified to operate the tractor safely. The dairy denied any negligence.

A Superior Court judge dismissed the lawsuit, but the 5th District Court of Appeal in Fresno reinstated it on the grounds that the state Supreme Court had not specifically barred suits in cases that alleged negligent hiring.

Alberto Camargo died when his tractor rolled over as he was driving over a big mound of manure at the dairy. He was a full-time employee of Golden Cal Trucking, which the dairy had hired to scrape manure out of its corrals and haul it away in exchange for the right to buy the manure at a discount. The manure is sold to farmers for use as fertilizer.

Timothy A. Black, the lawyer for the Camargo family, said the tractor was not properly equipped with roll bars and safety restraints, making the contractor unqualified for the job.

"It is not realistic to think the marketplace is going to take care of worker safety, especially now that we have so many day laborers," Black said. "We have to remember that a laborer has the choice of whom they are going to work for but not a choice of whom their employer is going to take a job from."

Black said that he did not know how much Camargo and her children received from workers' compensation, but that it was probably no more than $200,000.

The workers' compensation system bars employees from suing their employers for on-the-job injuries and generally limits their recovery to medical expenses and lost wages, the Times notes.

John F. Petrini, who represented the Kern County dairy, said it would be unfair if the hirer were liable for substantial damages when the firm that employed the worker could not be sued.

"A contractor can be totally negligent and the bulk of the liability could fall on the person who hired that contractor, even though that person might not be negligent at all or hardly at all," Petrini said.

Fred H. Hiestand, general counsel for the Civil Justice Association of California, a tort reform group, said the decision should encourage companies to obtain workers' compensation insurance.

"If you get workers' compensation, you can't be sued for injuries to your employees," Hiestand said. "If you don't get it, it is open season on you."

To view the Los Angeles Times story, click here.
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