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Firm Notches California Supreme Court Victory for Legendary Singer Johnny Mathis

August 23, 2021
The high court’s decision has massive implications for hirers and homeowners across California, who faced an attempt at an unprecedented expansion of tort liability.

A cross-office team of Latham litigators secured a unanimous victory in the California Supreme Court on behalf of the legendary singer Johnny Mathis in a tort suit brought against by Luis Gonzalez, an independent contractor injured while working at Mr. Mathis’s home. The California Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in the midst of a wave of legal reform sweeping California and the country regarding the proper classification of independent contractors. The decision in Gonzalez v. Mathis stabilizes the law in California governing hirers’ limited liability to independent contractors, an issue that affects millions of California transactions each year.

The case arose after Mr. Gonzalez, who owned a company that specialized in cleaning windows and skylights, fell from Mr. Mathis’s roof while cleaning a skylight he had cleaned without incident for nearly twenty years. Although such an injury would ordinarily be covered by workers’ compensation insurance, Mr. Gonzalez never obtained workers’ compensation insurance for his workers or himself. Instead, Mr. Gonzalez therefore sued Mr. Mathis in 2014 for negligence, claiming that Mr. Mathis—who was recovering from hip surgery in the hospital at the time of the fall—was liable for his injuries. In particular, Mr. Gonzalez claimed that Mr. Mathis’s roof was slippery and that Mr. Mathis’s alleged failure to repair that hazardous condition led to his injuries.

Latham was hired by Mr. Mathis years into the case and 24 hours before the summary judgment deadline, because he had lost confidence in his carrier’s counsel. In particular, Mr. Mathis was concerned that the carrier’s counsel had decided it would be fruitless to bring a motion for summary judgment. Latham immediately obtained a trial continuance so as to prepare a summary judgment motion. On summary judgment, Latham argued Mr. Gonzalez’s claims were barred by California’s “Privette doctrine,” which holds that the hirer of an independent contractor presumptively delegates responsibility for workplace safety—and liability for workplace injuries—to the contractor. Underlying the Privette doctrine is that contractors are usually better positioned than homeowners or other hirers to identify workplace hazards, ensure that the work is done safely, and pass along the costs of those precautions in the contract price. Prior to this case, California’s courts had carved out two exceptions to that rule—a hirer may be responsible for a contractor’s injuries if (1) the hirer concealed a hidden hazard from the contractor; or (2) the hirer retained control over the contractor’s work and used that control to affirmatively contribute to the injury. The trial court agreed with Latham that neither of those exceptions applied to Mr. Gonzalez’s claim. As it explained, discovery had established that Mr. Gonzalez was well aware that the roof was slippery and that Mr. Mathis did not retain control over Mr. Gonzalez’s work at the time of the accident. Accordingly, the trial court granted summary judgment to Mr. Mathis in March 2016.

In a significant decision with major implications for homeowners and other hirers, the Court of Appeal reversed, creating a new exception to Privette’s general rule under which hirers would be liable for the injuries of an independent contractor’s employees if the contractor was unable to take “reasonable safety precautions” to avoid the injury. This ruling would have forced homeowners and other hirers to affirmatively determine whether an expert contractor could adopt reasonable safety precautions, and expose them to catastrophic liability if they permitted the work to continue and injuries ensued. As the California Supreme Court explained, the Court of Appeal’s new exception would swallow the rule and make summary judgment for homeowners nearly impossible.

Latham petitioned the California Supreme Court to review the court of appeal’s decision, and rallied a host of amici representing homeowners, insurers, and businesses to support the petition. The court granted review in 2018, and Washington D.C. partner Michael Bern delivered remote oral argument in June 2021. On August 19, 2021, the California Supreme Court issued a unanimous opinion reversing the court of appeal’s decision and instructing that judgment should be entered in favor of Mr. Mathis. In a decision that closely tracked Latham’s briefing and oral argument, the Court held that the “broad third exception to the Privette doctrine” created by the Court of Appeal was “fundamentally inconsistent with that doctrine” and would “vastly expand hirer liability” in a way that “makes little sense.” As the Supreme Court noted, the court of appeal’s newfound exception would have “turn[ed] Privette’s presumption of delegation on its head” by requiring a homeowner or hirer—rather than an expert contractor—to determine whether work can be completed safely. That rule was ill-conceived, the Court noted, “given that a landowner typically hires an independent contractor precisely because of the contractor’s expertise in the contracted-for work and the hirer usually has no right to interfere with the contractor’s decisions regarding safety or otherwise control the contractor’s work.”

The team was led by partners Marvin Putnam and Rob Ellison, Jessica Stebbins-Bina and Michael Bern with associate Blake Stafford and former associates Lexi Shechtel and Graham Phillips. Other members of Latham’s Supreme Court and Appellate Practice assisted with moot courts, including partners Melissa Arbus Sherry and Rick Bress with associate Samir Deger-Sen, Caroline Flynn, Charlie Dameron, and Eric Konopka. Support was also provided by paralegal Andrea Setterholm

On being told of the unanimous decision, Mr. Mathis thanked the entire Latham team and expressed his great honor at having an eponymous California Supreme Court precedent added to his long list of achievements