Tag Archive for: case summary

Beebe v. Wonderful Pistachios: California Court Lowers Causation Bar in Bird Droppings Lawsuit


In June 2023, the California Court of Appeal examined the proof needed to establish causation in toxic exposure cases, reversing a defense summary judgment in Beebe v. Wonderful Pistachios & Almonds LLC. The court held that the plaintiff had raised a triable issue of material fact through circumstantial evidence connecting his exposure to contaminated bird droppings in his workplace with his subsequent fungal infection.

The plaintiff, Dale Beebe, was an electrical foreman for Braaten Electric, Inc., a subcontractor hired by Potential Design, Inc. and its owner James Tjerrild (collectively “Potential Design”) for construction projects at a pistachio facility in Firebaugh, California owned by Wonderful Pistachios and Almonds LLC (“Wonderful”). For almost two years between 2012-2014, Beebe worked at Wonderful’s Firebaugh facility.

The Firebaugh facility was plagued by migrating flocks of swallows that nested under a pole barn-like structure and created extreme accumulations of bird droppings. Wonderful would periodically dry sweep or blow the droppings into the surrounding dirt using leaf blowers. In late 2015, over a year after completing work at the facility, Beebe was diagnosed with histoplasmosis, a fungal infection caused by inhalation of spores from the fungus Histoplasma capsulatum, which thrives in bird feces.

Beebe sued Wonderful and Potential Design for negligence, alleging their conduct regarding the bird droppings caused his illness. The defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing there was no proof the droppings caused Beebe’s histoplasmosis. The trial court agreed, excluding Beebe’s expert declarations as speculative and granting summary judgment for the defendants.

The Court of Appeal reversed, finding Beebe had raised a triable issue of causation under California’s “substantial factor” test, which only requires a defendant’s conduct to be more than a negligible or theoretical cause. Though no soil testing definitively proved the droppings were contaminated, Beebe’s physician expert testified the San Joaquin Valley has a relatively high incidence of histoplasmosis. Other evidence showed the birds roosted at the site for years and Wonderful’s practices would disperse contaminated dust that Beebe inhaled while living and working onsite.

The court found Beebe’s circumstantial evidence analogous to the restaurant patron in Sarti v. Salt Creek who contracted food poisoning after eating raw tuna at a restaurant with unsanitary conditions likely causing cross-contamination. Though no testing proved the restaurant’s chicken carried the bacteria, the conditions permitted an inference of causation. Here, though testing did not confirm the droppings were contaminated, ample evidence supported causation under the substantial factor test.

The court underscored that property owners like Wonderful must handle toxic substances appropriately. By reversing summary judgment, the court opened the door for Beebe to prove at trial that Wonderful’s negligent handling of contaminated bird droppings caused his life-altering illness. 

Key Takeaways

  • The case involves a lawsuit brought by an employee who contracted a fungal infection, histoplasmosis, allegedly due to exposure to accumulated bird droppings at his workplace.
  • A key issue examined by the court was whether the plaintiff provided sufficient evidence of causation between his illness and the defendants’ conduct regarding the bird droppings.
  • The court held there was a triable issue of material fact as to causation based on the plaintiff’s expert testimony and circumstantial evidence connecting his exposure to contaminated bird droppings at his workplace to his subsequent infection.
  • Even without definitive scientific proof like soil testing, the court found the circumstantial evidence created a reasonable inference of causation under the “substantial factor” test.
  • The case illustrates the type of showing needed to establish causation in a toxic exposure case, including through expert testimony and circumstantial evidence.
  • A property owner or employer may be liable where sufficient evidence connects negligence in handling toxic substances like contaminated bird droppings to a plaintiff’s illness. 


In reversing summary judgment, the Beebe decision eased the causation burden for plaintiffs in toxic exposure cases, confirming that circumstantial evidence may be used to establish causation under California’s “substantial factor” test without definitive scientific proof. The court also found ample evidence to support a reasonable inference that the defendant’s negligent handling of contaminated bird droppings caused the plaintiff’s illness. This decision illustrates that property owners and employers must handle toxic substances appropriately or risk liability if their negligent actions are connected to resultant illnesses.

Blaylock v. DMP 250 Newport Center LLC: California Court Affirms Defense Judgment in Crawl Space Injury Case


In a closely watched decision issued in May 2023, the California Court of Appeal examined the merits of the concealed hazard exception to the Privette doctrine in the context of a workplace injury lawsuit. The court affirmed a defense judgment in favor of a property owner who had been sued by an HVAC technician injured after falling through an access panel in a commercial building’s crawl space. Travis Blaylock v. DMP 250 Newport Center, LLC, et al. demonstrates the heavy burden plaintiffs must meet under Privette to hold landowners liable for on-the-job injuries suffered by contractors’ employees.

The plaintiff, Travis Blaylock, was a project manager for Air Control Systems, Inc. (ACS), an HVAC contractor in southern California. In October 2018, Blaylock suffered serious injuries after falling approximately 10 feet through a plywood access panel while working in a cramped plenum crawl space at an office building in Newport Beach, California owned by DMP 250 Newport Center, LLC and managed by DMP Management, LLC (together, DMP). Blaylock had been dispatched to the crawl space to investigate an airflow issue for one of DMP’s tenants.

Blaylock accessed the crawl space through a door on the roof. He was using his cell phone flashlight to illuminate the dark, confined space between the roof and ceiling where the building’s HVAC ductwork was located. As Blaylock traversed the area, he stepped onto what appeared to be a plywood panel flush with the other sections of plywood covering parts of the crawl space “floor.” 

In actuality, the panel was covering an opening that provided access to the crawl space from a storage room one story below. Unaware that the panel was not meant to bear weight, Blaylock plunged through the opening and crashed onto the floor of the storage room, suffering severe injuries.

After his fall, it became clear the access panel was intended to allow entry into the crawl space from the storage area. Importantly, DMP had no involvement in the original design or construction of the building and denied having any knowledge of the panel or its hazardous nature. DMP only became aware of the access point because of Blaylock’s accident.

Blaylock sued DMP for premises liability and negligence, alleging the unmarked access panel constituted a concealed hazard. DMP moved for summary judgment, arguing that under California’s Privette doctrine, it could not be held liable for Blaylock’s on-the-job injury because he was working for an independent contractor over whom DMP exercised no control.

The trial court agreed and granted summary judgment in DMP’s favor, finding no triable issues as to the concealed hazard exception set forth in Kinsman v. Unocal Corp. (2005) 37 Cal.4th 659. Blaylock appealed.

The court of appeal affirmed, holding that Blaylock failed to demonstrate a triable issue because even if DMP should have known the access panel existed (based on its potential visibility from the storage room below), there was no evidence DMP actually knew or should have known the panel presented a hazard to HVAC workers inside the crawl space. The court reiterated the principle that under Privette, a landowner implicitly delegates responsibility for job safety to an independent contractor.

It is important to note that the court rejected Blaylock’s assertion that the inadequate lighting in the crawl space rendered the access panel a concealed hazard. The court stated it was incumbent on ACS, not DMP, to ensure proper illumination within the workspace. Further, had ACS workers conducted a reasonable inspection of the crawl space, they would have recognized that the access panel was unsafe to walk on since it was affixed to the bottom of the ceiling joists rather than resting atop them like the other sections of plywood flooring.

By holding that DMP had no actual or constructive knowledge of the hazardous condition from the perspective of those working in the crawl space, the Court underscored that when applying the concealed hazard exception, the property owner’s knowledge is paramount. The contractor’s ability to discover the danger through inspection is a secondary consideration.

Key Takeaways

  • The Blaylock case involves a workplace injury lawsuit brought by an HVAC technician who was injured after falling through an access panel in a crawl space while servicing an air conditioning system.
  • The court applied the Privette doctrine, which limits a property owner’s liability for on-the-job injuries sustained by employees of an independent contractor. Under this doctrine, the property owner is not liable if they do not retain control over the work.
  • There is an exception to the Privette doctrine when the property owner knows or should know of a concealed hazardous condition that the contractor does not know about and cannot reasonably discover.
  • The court found the access panel was not a concealed hazard because the lighting conditions were the contractor’s responsibility, and a reasonable inspection by the contractor would have revealed the unsafe nature of the panel.
  • The property owner did not know nor have reason to know the panel presented a hazard to the contractor’s employees. Therefore, the exception did not apply and the Privette doctrine shielded the property owner from liability.
  • The key issues were the defendant’s knowledge of the hazardous condition and whether it was concealed from the contractor. Since there was no evidence on these issues, summary judgment for the defendant was affirmed.


The Blaylock decision demonstrates that under California’s Privette doctrine, a property owner is generally not liable for injuries suffered by a contractor’s employee on a worksite unless the owner concealed a known hazardous condition. This premises liability case illustrates that to overcome the Privette rule of nonliability, an injured plaintiff must show the property owner actually knew of a hidden danger that the contractor could not have reasonably discovered through inspection.