Supreme Court Bars Injury Claim by Independent Contractor on Construction Site

Can an independent contractor sue a general contractor for injuries he sustains on a construction site as a result of a “peculiar risk” inherent in the nature of the work? No, said the California Supreme Court in the case of Tverberg v. Fillner Construction, Inc., issued June 28, 2010, because the independent contractor assumes responsibility for workplace safety by entering into a contract requiring the performance of inherently dangerous work.

The case was brought by a licensed subcontractor, Jeffrey Tverberg, for injuries he sustained when he fell into a bollard hole while constructing a metal canopy over some fuel-pumping units. The holes had been dug by another subcontractor who had been hired to erect concrete posts for the expansion of a commercial fuel facility operated by an oil company. Tverberg sued Fillner Construction Company, the general contractor on the project, for physical and mental injuries under theories of negligence and premises liability. 

The Court held that because Tverberg’s contract granted him the authority to determine the manner in which the work was to be performed, he assumed legal responsibility for taking whatever precautions were necessary to perform the work in a safe manner. Previously, in Privette v. Superior Court, the Court had 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, because those injuries are covered by workers’ compensation insurance. By essentially expanding its decision in Privette to independent contractors, the Court further insulated general contractors from potential injury claims by sole proprietors such as Tverberg even though he was not subject to mandatory coverage for workplace injuries under the workers’ compensation system.

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