March 1, 2024


Love your Curiosity

Court holds homeowner Johnny Mathis not liable for injuries to independent contractor window cleaner

When you hire an independent contractor to work at your home or business, the nature of the independent contractor relationship gives you control only over what is to be done, not how it is to be done.

If the independent contractor is injured while performing the work due to a hazardous condition on your property of which the contractor was aware, you are not legally responsible unless you directed the contractor to perform the job in a way that caused the injury. But are you, the landowner, nonetheless liable if there are no reasonable precautions the independent contractor could have taken to avoid the hazard that resulted in his injury?

This month, in a case brought against singer Johnny Mathis by a window cleaner he had engaged for years to clean the skylight on his roof, the California Supreme Court answered that question no.

The facts

Beverly Hills Window Cleaning specialized in hard-to-reach windows and skylights. In 2012, the owner of the business, Luis Gonzalez, climbed a ladder to the roof of Mathis’s home after Mathis’s housekeeper directed him to tell his workers to use less water while cleaning the skylight because water was leaking into the house.

As Gonzalez was walking between a parapet wall Mathis had installed for aesthetic reasons and the edge of the roof, Gonzalez slipped and fell to the ground. The roof was very slippery and had no guardrail or other safety features. Gonzalez did not have legally required workers compensation insurance.

Gonzalez was aware the roof was dangerous. Months before the accident, Gonzalez even had told Mathis’s staff the roof needed repair. Gonzalez did not, however, indicate the roof’s condition made it impossible to clean the skylight safely.

The state high court ordered dismissal of Gonzalez’s suit against Mathis. Here’s why.

Controlling principles

California law has long presumed that when a landowner hires an independent contractor to perform work, the landowner delegates to the independent contractor all responsibility for workplace safety. The landowner consequently is not liable for injuries to the independent contractor and its workers caused by hazards known to the contractor.

An independent contractor typically may factor the cost of added safety precautions or increased safety risk into the contract price. The contractor’s legal obligation to carry workers compensation insurance for his workers, and ability to carry it for himself, ensures injured workers will receive at least some compensation.

There are two ways this no-liability rule may be rebutted. The first is where the hirer-landowner exerts control over any part of the contractor’s work in a way that “affirmatively contributes to the worker’s injuries.” The second, not applicable in this case, is where the independent contractor’s injuries result from a hazard concealed from the contractor.

The court identified five ways a hirer’s control over the project’s safety may expose the hirer to liability for injuries to the independent contractor: “directing the manner or methods in which the contractor performs the work; interfering with the contractor’s decisions regarding the appropriate safety measures to adopt; requesting the contractor to use the hirer’s own defective equipment in performing the work; contractually prohibiting the contractor from implementing a necessary safety precaution; or reneging on a promise to remedy a known hazard.” Note that such control also risks rendering the worker the hirer’s employee, instead of an independent contractor.

The court concluded that making a landowner additionally liable for injuries suffered by an independent contractor who could not reasonably guard against the injury-causing hazard would require the landowner to assess and address known workplace hazards on his property. “This makes little sense given that the 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.”


“Landowners, like Mathis, hire independent contractors precisely because of their expertise in the contracted-for work,” said the court. “This expertise puts contractors in a better position to determine whether they can protect their workers against a known hazard on the worksite and whether the work can be performed safely despite the hazard.”

It did not matter legally that Mathis did not fix the dangerous condition of the roof after the contractor told Mathis’s staff it needed to be repaired, absent a promise from Mathis or his staff to repair the roof or pressure from them to do the work anyway.

The housekeeper’s instruction to the contractor to go to the roof to tell his workers to use less water was not the kind of control that exposed Mathis to liability. It was the roof’s condition and the placement of the parapet wall that led to the contractor’s injury, not the housekeeper’s instruction.

A solid ruling based on sad facts.

Dan Eaton is a partner with the San Diego law firm of Seltzer Caplan McMahon Vitek where his practice focuses on defending and advising employers. He also is an instructor at the San Diego State University Fowler College of Business where he teaches classes in business ethics and employment law. He may be reached at [email protected]. His Twitter handle is @DanEatonlaw