Foreman sues hirer and contractor after assault at California construction site

Defendants negligently failed to protect workers, foreman alleges

Foreman sues hirer and contractor after assault at California construction site

Unknown assailants attacked and seriously injured a foreman working at a construction site.

In the case of Degala v. John Stewart Company et al., the foreman asked for damages based on negligence and premises liability.

John Stewart Company (JSC) signed a contract hiring Cahill Contractors, Inc. as general contractor for a construction project at the Hunters Point East-West housing complex in San Francisco. Cahill hired Janus Corporation as subcontractor to perform demolition work. The foreman was an employee of Janus.

The foreman sued JSC and Cahill. He alleged that the defendants negligently managed the operation of the construction site by failing to monitor access to the site and by failing to prevent access by people seeking to harm workers.

In his premises liability claim, the foreman alleged that the defendants removed security guards from the site, allowed unfettered access, and thus breached their duties to control and to maintain the site in a reasonably safe condition and to exercise reasonable care in performing their voluntary undertakings to provide security.

The defendants filed summary judgment motions arguing that the Privette doctrine barred the foreman’s claims. Under the Privette doctrine, the hirer of an independent contractor was generally not liable for on-the-job injuries of the contractor’s employees.

The trial court granted summary judgment in the defendants’ favor. It rejected the foreman’s argument that the defendants were liable under the Hooker exception to the Privette doctrine. The Hooker exception would apply if the hirer retained control over any part of the contractor’s work and exercised that control in a way that affirmatively contributed to the injury.

The foreman appealed. The California Court of Appeal for the First District reversed the trial court's judgments and returned the matter to the trial court for further proceedings.

Defendants retained control over site security

The foreman provided evidence from written contracts supporting that JSC and Cahill maintained control over security at the construction site, the appellate court said. The defendants jointly decided on the appropriate amount of site security. JSC bought and installed a camera system.

The evidence also showed that the defendants took security measures after the attack. JSC hired off-duty police officers to stay at the site during work hours. Cahill added a perimeter fence that would eliminate the public walkway where the attack occurred.

Defendants controlled contracted work

The foreman presented evidence showing that JSC and Cahill retained control over Janus’s contracted work and actually exercised that control, the appellate court said. Maintaining site security was an ongoing issue throughout Janus’s demolition work.

The evidence also demonstrated that the defendants had weekly discussions about site security due to ongoing concerns about the safety of property and people at the site. They implemented measures including eliminating overtime, instructing workers to stop before sundown and to stay indoors during breaks, occasionally closing the site, and configuring fences around the site.

Defendants took reasonable precautions

The foreman gave evidence that Janus did not have obligations for site security and that JSC and Cahill provided reasonable protection to prevent injury to the subcontractor’s employees arising from unauthorized access to the worksite, the appellate court said.

Ample evidence showed that the defendants took affirmative steps to address the dangers that the workers faced in an area known to have a high crime rate, the appellate court added.

Summary judgment was improper since a jury should resolve the questions of whether the defendants’ measures were reasonable and whether the alleged unreasonableness contributed to the foreman’s injuries, the appellate court concluded.

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