Independent Contractors — Non-Delegable Duties
Posted in Negligence on August 21, 2015
Vargas v. FMI, Inc., — Cal.Rptr. —-, 15 Cal. Daily Op. Serv. 861, 2015 Daily Journal D.A.R. 1014
An independent contractor who was part of a two-man team driving a tractor-trailer cross-country was in the truck’s sleeper berth when the driver rolled the vehicle over, causing him to sustain injuries. The injured passenger filed suit against the driver and the motor carrier and trailer owner, as well as the hiring contractor who had hired them, contending that the carrier owed him a nondelegable duty of care and that the defendants were vicariously liable for the driver’s negligence.
The trial court granted summary judgment, finding that because the plaintiff and the driver were independent contractors, and the duty to provide a safe working environment is implicitly and presumptively delegated in all independent contractor agreements, there could be no liability for the negligence of the driver. However, the court of appeal reversed, holding that the Federal Motor Carrier Act (49 United States Code section 13101 et seq.), precludes delegation of the tort law duty that motor carriers owe to independent-contractor drivers:
Privette and its progeny have never been applied to a case like the present one, where the basis for vicarious liability is alleged to be a “franchise granted by public authority” (Rest. 2d Torts, § 428)—here, a federal motor carrier’s license. Moreover, federal law requires motor carriers using leased vehicles to “have control of and be responsible for” such vehicles (49 U.S.C. section 14102) in order to “protect the public from the tortious conduct of the often judgment-proof truck lessor operators.” …
The nondelegable duties doctrine, another exception to the common law rule of hirer nonliability, “prevents a party that owes a duty to others from evading responsibility by claiming to have delegated that duty to an independent contractor hired to do the necessary work.”… As relevant here, the Restatement Second of Torts describes two kinds of nondelegable duties: (1) Section 424 (Precautions Required by Statute or Regulation) (section 424: …(2) Section 428 (Contractor’s Negligence in Doing Work Which Cannot Lawfully Be Done Except Under a Franchise Granted to His Employer). …
Taken together, these statutory and regulatory provisions are clear that although a motor carrier may act through an independent contractor driving a leased vehicle, the motor carrier retains ultimate responsibility for the vehicle’s safe operation—and, in the event of an accident, for satisfying a judgment “for bodily injury to, or death of, an individual resulting from the negligent operation, maintenance, or use of motor vehicles, or for loss or damage to property.” (49 U.S.C. § 13906(a)(1).) Construing these provisions, as FMI suggests, to allow the motor carrier to delegate to independent contractors the duty to safely operate vehicles on public highways, runs contrary to the plain language of these provisions and to the public policy expressed in the Act.