LOOKING FOR THE DEEP POCKET
In the legal world, a “deep pocket” – or sacculus profundis for you Latin scholars out there – is a defendant who possesses the wherewithal to pay a big damage award and who has the misfortune to be sufficiently enough related to the plaintiff’s claim to find himself or herself on the wrong end of a court order that the purse be opened. Generally, the deeper the pocket (and the greater the dearth of alternative deep pockets), the more willing a plaintiff is to stretch the claim to encompass the deep pocket’s participation. Today’s case illustrates the point.
The Nelsons needed to have their trees trimmed, so they called Julian Rodriguez Landscape and Tree Service, the same tree service they and their neighbors had used many times before. The outfit seemed competent and efficient, and the Nelsons found over the years that they could simply tell the tree service owner what they wanted, and he’d make the decisions on how to do it.
During the course of the Nelsons’ dealings with Rodriguez Landscape, no one had ever asked whether the company was licensed. That, after all, was more a state requirement than a practical one. Julian Rodriguez Landscape and Tree Service did good work, and the price was right. What more does a homeowner need to know?
On the day in question, however, things didn’t go so well. Luis Flores, one of Julian’s workers, was using a pole saw when it came into contact with a high voltage line, killing him. Unsurprisingly, investigation bore out that Rodriguez Landscape had cut a few corners, technicalities such as obtaining a state license and paying workers’ compensation for its employees. Sadly, the late Mr. Flores’s family was left without a breadwinner, and no money would flow from the nonexistent workers’ comp to compensate the survivors for their loss.
Luckily for the Flores next-of-kin, they hired a creative personal injury lawyer whose ad probably ran on daytime TV and appeared on the back of the phonebook (remember phonebooks?). Their lawyer correctly identified the Nelsons and their homeowners’ insurance policy as the only money tree available for trimming by the Flores family. Thus, he put together a wrongful death action for the family that argued that (1) under California workers’ comp law, homeowners who hire unlicensed contractors are deemed employers of the contractors’ workers for workers’ comp purposes; and (2) an obscure California criminal statute made workers and employers criminally liable if any tools came within six feet of a high voltage line. Therefore, the Flores’ legal theory went, the Nelsons – as de facto employers of Mr. Flores – were liable to his family because he died when he touched the high voltage line.
The Flores family couldn’t sell this very creative theory to the trial court, but the California Court of Appeals loved it. Unhappy with the gossamer-thin argument connecting them to Mr. Flores’ accident, the Nelsons took the issue to the California Supreme Court.
The California Supreme Court let reason prevail. The purpose of the statute, the Court said, was to protect third parties from injury because a tree trimmer’s equipment comes into contact with a high voltage line. The statute was never intended to protect a worker who foolishly contacts a power line by letting him or her collect from the employer for the worker’s own negligence. That being the case, the Court said, it wasn’t necessary to figure out whether the homeowners would be considered Mr. Flores’ employer as a matter of law.
A lesson here: In California – in fact, anywhere – a prudent homeowner will make sure the arborist or tree service contractor is licensed, regardless of whether a license has anything to do with competence or skill. And service providers should volunteer to customers proof of their credentials, not just because it looks professional, but because it’s the kind of attention to detail now that helps avoid lawsuits then.
Julian Rodriguez didn’t pay attention to detail, and the Nelsons never asked. Years of expensive litigation resulted, and at the end of the day, the Flores widow and kids were left destitute. In fact, the only people who were better off for it all were the lawyers.
Ramirez v. Nelson, 44 Cal. 4th 908, 80 Cal.Rptr. 3d 728, 188 P.3d 659 (Sup.Ct. Cal. 2008). Homeowners Thomas and Vivian Nelson had a number of trees, including a large eucalyptus tree, in their back yard. Every few years, Southern California Edison trims the eucalyptus tree so that its branches do not reach the very visible high voltage electrical lines that run above the tree. When Southern California Edison’s tree trimmers gave the Nelsons notice they would trim the eucalyptus tree in 2004, but failed to show up when they were expected, the Nelsons hired Julian Rodriguez Landscape and Tree Service — an unlicensed contractor (although the Nelsons didn’t know this) — to “top” and trim several trees in their backyard, including the eucalyptus tree. The Nelsons and their neighbors had used Rodriguez Landscape four or five times in the past to top and trim trees, and everyone thought the company did competent work.
The Nelsons left it to Rodriguez’s good judgment as to how, or to what height, to top and trim the trees, and they neither supervised the trimming nor did they furnish the tools for the job. A few hours after the job began, Mrs. Nelson heard men shouting and saw them running to the eucalyptus tree. She went out onto her deck and saw tree trimmer Luis Flores hanging in the eucalyptus tree from his safety harness. He had been killed by electrocution when his pole saw – made of aluminum and wood – contacted the power lines.
Luis’s family sued the Nelsons, alleging negligence and wrongful death. The Flores argued that the Nelsons knew the high voltage lines constituted a dangerous condition on their property, knew the utility company responsible for the power lines had in the past trimmed the tree on which the decedent was working when electrocuted, and knew or should have known Rodriguez and his workers were unlicensed contractors. Nonetheless, the Flores asserted, the Nelsons negligently failed to warn or act as reasonable homeowners would have acted under similar circumstances in contracting with Rodriguez to trim the tree in question.
The Flores family argued that California Penal Code §385(b) made it a misdemeanor for any person, either personally “or through an employee,” to move any tool or equipment within six feet of a high voltage overhead line. They contended that the late Mr. Flores had been the Nelsons’ employee by operation of law under Labor Code §2750.5, making the Nelsons vicariously liable for any breach of the duty of care embodied in the law.
The Nelsons argued they had hired Rodriguez Landscaping to perform domestic tree trimming services, that Mr. Flores was contractor Rodriguez Landscaping’s employee, not theirs; that they didn’t owe him a duty of care under §385(b), and that the duty of care owed to him was simply that of reasonable homeowners acting under circumstances similar to those giving rise to the fatal accident.
Mr. Flores’ status as the homeowners’ “employee at law” under Labor Code §2750.5 was pivotal to the contested claim that the homeowners should be found liable. The trial court refused to allow the plaintiffs to refer to Mr. Flores as the Nelsons’ employee and refused to instruct the jury on Penal Code §385(b) or plaintiffs’ proposed negligence per se theory of the case.
The jury found for the Nelsons.
The Court of Appeal reversed the judgment, concluding Mr. Flores was the Nelsons’ employee at law under Labor Code §2750.5, and that Nelsons were liable for violating the statutory duty of care embodied in Penal Code §385(b). The Nelsons appealed to the Supreme Court of California.
Held: The Nelsons were not liable. The Supreme Court held that even if they were deemed to be the employers of Mr. Flores because they had hired an unlicensed contractor to trim trees — for purposes of liability for workers’ injuries — the Nelsons owed no statutory duty of care under Penal Code §385(b).
Under the test for a statutory presumption of a failure to exercise due care based on violation of a statute, the Court said, a trial court must determine as a matter of law whether the death or injury resulted from an occurrence of the kind which the statute was designed to prevent and whether the person suffering the death or the injury was a member of a class of persons for whose protection the statute was adopted. If a plaintiff is not within the protected class of persons that a statute was designed to protect, or if the injury did not result from the kind of occurrence the transgressed statute was designed to prevent, then the statutory “negligence per se” doctrine has no application to the negligence claim.
Here, the statute prohibiting moving tools and equipment within six feet of power lines augments the common law “reasonable person” standard of care owed to the general public with regard to the activity of moving or operating equipment in close proximity to power lines, by setting forth a standard of care making it a misdemeanor to move or operate tools and equipment within six feet of a power line, and by assigning strict liability for its violation.
The standard of care imposed by the statute amplifies the duty owed by people using tools or operating equipment near power lines to anyone in the world at large who might be injured by such conduct. However, it did not protect Mr. Flores from himself, and it certainly did not create a separate duty or standard of care owed by an employer to an employee engaged in the operation of tools or equipment in close proximity to high voltage lines. The statutory standard did not prescribe any particular course of conduct employers must take, or refrain from taking, in order to ensure their employees’ safety, or establish any standard of conduct with regard to supervision of employees engaged in such activity.
– Tom Root