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California Death Claim Summary Judgment Reversed on Appeal

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In California, the family members of people who are killed while they are working may recover benefits through workers’ compensation. When the accidents are caused by the negligence of third parties, the families may be able to file third-party lawsuits against the third parties in addition to their workers’ compensation claims. In some cases, failures to act may be compensable if they are negligent. In Peredia v. HR Mobile Services, Inc., Cal App. # F074083, the court ruled that a third-party safety consultant could be held liable for omissions if the plaintiff is able to prove all of the elements of the negligent undertaking by the consultant.

Factual background of the case

Oscar J. Perdia, Jr. was a 19-year-old man who was employed by Double Diamond Farms. Double Diamond Farms had hired HR Mobile Services to help the farm with workers’ compensation issues, training, loss prevention and human resources. HR Mobile agreed that it helped Double Diamond with workplace safety issues. Double Diamond Farm paid HR Mobile $24,000 per year for its services.

On Sept. 20, 2012, Oscar Peredia, Jr. was working at Double Diamond Farm. He was sweeping gravel off of a feed slab when a worker who was driving a John Deere tractor with a front-end loader attached to it struck him. Peredia was knocked down and run over by the front tire of the tractor, which killed him.

Double Diamond Farm had been in business since 1998 and had reached its agreement with HR Mobile Services in May 2012. HR Mobile Services gave the farm several human resources documents, including a form injury and illness prevention plan and some safety policy documents. HR Mobile Services held a safety training meeting on Aug. 24, 2012, including a training on tractor and front-end loader safety. The driver who hit Peredia, Jr. attended that meeting.

Oscar Peredia, Jr.’s parents, Oscar and Laura Peredia, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against HR Mobile Services and others in 2013. In 2014, the plaintiffs filed an amended complaint against HR Mobile Services, alleging negligence. The negligence claims that were filed by the Peredias alleged that HR Mobile was negligent in its failure to create a safety plan that addressed workers who worked near heavy equipment. The plaintiffs also alleged that HR Mobile Services was negligent in failing to instruct workers to wear high-visibility clothing and failing to educate the workers about the hazards of heavy equipment. Finally, the plaintiffs alleged that HR Mobile Services inadequately managed its responsibilities under the injury prevention plan.

Issue: Whether omissions are wrongful by their nature under Cal. Civ. Code 2343 or if the liability of the agent is precluded by the statute?

HR Mobile Services filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the plaintiff’s claims were without merit because they couldn’t prove causation or duty in their negligence claims. The trial court ruled that the claims were precluded by Cal. Civ. Code 2343 and granted the motion for summary judgment. The plaintiffs filed an appeal of the trial court’s ruling.

Rule: Agents are only responsible to third parties when their acts are wrongful in nature.

Cal. Civ. Code § 2343 states that agents of principals will only be liable in one of the three following situations but not in any others:

  • When the agent consents to and is given credit in a transaction;
  • When the agent enters into a contract that is written without believing that he or she has the ability to do so; or
  • When the agent’s actions are wrongful in nature.

The contract between HR Mobile Services and Double Diamond farm was oral. In this case, the issue was whether the company’s alleged omissions were wrongful by nature. If they could be considered to be wrongful by nature, then HR Mobile Services could potentially be held liable. If they were not wrongful by nature, then the negligence claims would fail.

Analysis

California recognizes a tort called negligent undertaking, which occurs when an agent performs services for another party that the agent recognizes are important for the safety of other third parties. In Artiglio v. Corning, 18 Cal.4th 604 (1998), the California Supreme Court discussed the tort of negligent undertaking. According to the court, agents who perform services for another party that it knows are necessary because they may affect the safety of third parties may be liable to the third parties if one of the following applies:

  • The failure increased the risk of harm; or
  • The agent has undertaken a duty that would have been owed by the other to the third party; or
  • The third party was harmed because of his or her reliance or because of the other party’s reliance on the agent to perform the duty.

The plaintiffs argued that HR Mobile Services owed a duty of care because it undertook the performance of the safety duties that Double Diamond owed to its workers and that Double Diamond relied on the performance because of the injury and illness prevention plan. The court first ruled that safety consultants can be liable to third parties under a claim of negligent undertaking. The court then examined the statutory language of Cal. Civ. Code § 2343. In Kurtin v. Elieff, 215 Cal.App.4th 455 (2013), the court found that while agents are not responsible for the torts of the principals, they are responsible for their own independent torts. Civil torts are civil wrongs that give rise to liability. Since negligent undertaking is a recognized tort in California, it could be considered to be wrongful in nature under the statute.

Conclusion

The court found that a safety consultant’s negligent undertaking is wrongful in nature and could give rise to liability if the plaintiffs are able to prove the elements of the negligence claims. Because of this, the court found that there were material issues of fact that should be decided by a jury. The trial court’s granting of the motion of summary judgment was overturned, and the case was returned to the trial court for further proceedings.

Contact an experienced injury lawyer in Los Angeles

If you have been injured in a workplace accident because of the negligent acts or omissions of a third party, you might have the grounds to file a third-party lawsuit against the responsible party. In order to identify all of the parties that you might be able to name as defendants, it is important for you to talk to an experienced personal injury attorney in Los Angeles. Contact the Law Offices of Steven M. Sweat today for a free analysis of your potential claim.

Sources

https://law.justia.com/cases/california/court-of-appeal/2018/f074083.html?utm_source=summary-newsletters&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=2018-08-03-personal-injury-86088e8710&utm_content=text-case-title-7

https://law.justia.com/codes/california/2011/civ/division-3/2342-2345/2343

https://law.justia.com/cases/california/supreme-court/4th/18/604.html

https://caselaw.findlaw.com/ca-court-of-appeal/1628428.html

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