Summary Judgment Not Appropriate Where Property Owner Did Not Show Contractor Was Licensed or Did Not Require License

Ray Vasilas flips houses for a living, performing some of the minor upgrades himself, but outsourcing most of the work to contractors with specialized knowledge and experience. Vasilas is not a licensed contractor and he does not instruct the contractors he hires how to do their work, he only tells them his desired outcome.

At a home that Vasilas was working on he hired two separate contractors, one named Gomez to do stucco work, and another named Blackwell to install rain gutters. Gomez owned, operated, and installed scaffolding to assist him in his work. Vasilas did not participate in any way in the erection or maintenance of the scaffolding. When Blackwell was installing the rain gutters, he assumed the scaffolding was safe and stable. He leaned his ladder against it to access a portion of the roof. He stepped on to the scaffolding while holding a large piece of a rain gutter. The scaffolding collapsed under his weight and he fell 10 feet to the ground onto a pile of bricks, injuring himself. Blackwell sued Vasilas for negligence.

Vasilas filed for summary judgment and argued that he had no duty to Blackwell. He had no knowledge that there was a dangerous condition on the property and therefore could not have had a duty to warn Blackwell. Blackwell argued that Gomez's work created a special condition of physical harm and that Vasilas breached his duty to investigate whether Gomez was licensed. Since he was unlicensed, Blackwell argued, he was an employee of Vasilas and therefore Vasilas was liable. The trial court granted Vasilas's motion, emphasizing that there was no evidence of negligence by anyone, no evidence that Vasilas had any control over the process, no evidence as to how or why the scaffolding collapsed, and no evidence that Blackwell was compelled to use the scaffolding in his own work. Blackwell appealed.

On appeal Blackwell narrowed his argument, claiming that because Gomez was unlicensed, he was Vasilas's employee for purposes of respondeat superior and therefore Vasilas was liable for Gomez's negligence. Under Labor Code section 2750.5, an unlicensed contractor is the hirer's employee as a matter of law. This required Vasilas to prove that Gomez was either licensed or not required to be license in order to win on summary judgment.

The court assumed without deciding that Vasilas was able to show Gomez was an independent contractor under common law standards. However, under Labor Code section 2750.5, Vasilas had another burden of proving either that Gomez was licensed or not required to be licensed. Vasilas did not meet this burden. The court highlighted the public policy purpose of this law, which is to impose liability on the person who is benefiting from the labor and encourages people to hire licensed contractors who have demonstrated competence and carry their own insurance. The trial court's ruling was reversed.

Blackwell v. Vasilas, --Cal.Rptr.3d--, 2016 WL 304125.