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Homeowners Were Not Liable, This Time, for Injury Sustained by Employee of Their Unlicensed, Uninsured Contractor

Vebr v. Culp serves as a cautionary tale for any homeowner considering hiring a contractor to perform work on their home.

 

The Culps contracted with OC Wide Painting to paint the interior of their home. The contract specified that OC Wide had workers’ compensation insurance, or would acquire it. Culp confirmed online that OC Wide had a valid license and also checked OC Wide Painting’s references. Before signing the contract, Culp reviewed the California Contractors State License Board’s detail for OC Wide which stated: “This License is exempt from workers compensation insurance; they certified that they have no employees at this time.”

 

An hour into working in the Culps’ home, OC Wide’s employee, Plaintiff Tomas Vebr, fell from an extension ladder provided by OC Wide resulting in serious injury. The ladder was supported by two helpers employed by OC Wide. OC Wide never did acquire workers’ compensation insurance as promised in the contract and the Culps did not halt the project despite the fact that other individuals were working in their home.

 

California Business and Professions Code § 7125.2(a)(2) provides that a contractor’s license is automatically suspended by operation of law as of the date the contractor is required to obtain workers’ compensation insurance but fails to do so. Labor Code § 2750.5 provides that a worker who performs services for which a license is required but lacks such a license is rebuttably presumed to be an employee, not an independent contractor.

 

Vebr sought to hold the Culps liable in tort under the theory of respondeat superior as Vebr’s statutory employer in light of OC Wide’s unlicensed and uninsured status. The Culps moved for summary judgment on the grounds there were no facts to show that they were liable for Vebr’s injuries, that they breached any duty owed to Vebr, that the premises were dangerous or defective, or that the Culps’ actions were the legal or proximate cause of Vebr’s injuries. The trial court agreed and granted the motion for summary judgment. Vebr appealed, and the Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, affirmed the decision of the Orange County Superior Court.

 

Ordinarily, when an employee sustains a worksite injury, the exclusive remedy is provided by the workers’ compensation law, and the employer is immune from a lawsuit. (Lab. C. §§ 3600, 3601, 3602.) But if the employer has not secured workers’ compensation coverage, an injured employee may bring a civil suit against his employer. (Lab. C. § 3706.) If the employee establishes that he was injured in the course and scope of his employment, a rebuttable presumption is created that an uninsured employer was negligent and the employer is precluded from claiming comparative fault or assumption of risk as a defense. (Lab. C. § 3708; Huang v. L.A. Haute (2003) 106 Cal.App.4th 284, 289–291.)

 

When an employee of a contractor is injured, and the contractor is unlicensed and uninsured at the time of injury, the injured employee’s recourse may be against not only the contractor, but also against the landowner who hired the contractor, as an additional employer. (Heiman v. Workers’ Comp. Appeals Bd. (2007) 149 Cal.App.4th 724, 734.) The injured employee may have the landowner deemed a “statutory” employer and seek workers’ compensation benefits through the landowner’s general liability or homeowners’ insurance policy. In this case, the Culps were insured under a homeowners’ policy but Vebr did not qualify as a “residence employee” under that coverage. This meant that if the Culps were found liable, they would have to pay out of pocket for Vebr’s injuries.

 

The potential scope of a homeowner’s tort liability to an injured employee of an unlicensed contractor whom the homeowner hired has not yet been resolved by the California Supreme Court. (See Cortez v. Abich (2011) 51 Cal.4th 285, 291 [“Whether unlicensed contractors or their workers may or must be deemed the homeowners’ employees under section 2750.5 … are difficult and unsettled questions.]; Ramirez v. Nelson (2008) 44 Cal.4th 908, 916 [same].

 

The Court ruled that it did not need to decide whether the Culps were the statutory employer of Vebr because no triable issue of material fact existed regarding such liability. The court concluded: “Here, the undisputed facts show the cause of Vebr’s fall is a mystery. There is no evidence showing what had occurred or that Vebr was free from negligence himself. There is no evidence, for example, that at the time of the fall, he was holding on the ladder with two hands and did not cause the fall himself by losing his balance. On this record, there is no reasonable and logical inference that…anyone…present in the residence at the time of the accident, was negligent. Someone might have been negligent, but we do not and likely never will know whether that was the case.”

 

Don’t count on being as lucky as the Culps. If you are considering hiring a contractor to perform work in your home, review their license and insurance status. If the license deems the contractor exempt from carrying workers’ compensation insurance because there are no employees, make sure no one other than the contractor himself performs work at the property. Otherwise, immediately halt the work and demand written proof of workers’ compensation insurance. Doing so will reduce the possibility of being deemed a statutory employer and possibly held liable for injuries sustained by workers on your property.

 

Vebr v. Culp (2015) 14 C.D.O.S. 11845

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