Today we discussed strict liability for wild animals in the wake of the terrible tragedy in Canada. Bakersfield, California is facing another area of traditional strict liability after a man lost his leg to shrapnel from a demolition of a power plant and various others were injured. Such demolitions fall within ultrahazardous or abnormally dangerous activities subject to common law strict liability rules.
The liability in the case could extend not only to the contractor, Cleveland Wrecking Co. of Covina, but also the city and county. The public utility, Pacific Gas and Electric, owned the steam power plant that was decommissioned decades ago. The government allowed people to come and watch and there was obviously a great deal of public information to allow such spectators — over a 1000 people by some estimates. Some slept in their cars to get a good spot for the show in a Lowe’s Home Improvement Store parking lot.
The explosion sent shrapnel through two chain link fences and tore the 44-year-old man’s leg off and injured at least four others. The man also had sever injuries to his other leg.
The contractor is obviously potentially liable under strict liability. Road blasting and demolition are viewed as ultrahazardous activities or activities that remain highly dangerous even with the use of due care.
The potential liability clearly includes the city. While it used a contractor, I would argue that this was a nondelegable duty. Restatement Second of Torts, section 424, provides: “One who by statute or by administrative regulation is under a duty to provide specified safeguards or precautions for the safety of others is subject to liability to the others for whose protection the duty is imposed for harm caused by the failure of a contractor employed by him to provide such safeguards or precautions.”
This rule applies in California:
“The law has long recognized one party may owe a duty to another which, for public policy reasons, cannot be delegated. Such nondelegable duties derive from statutes, contracts, and common law precedents. Courts have held a party owing such a duty cannot escape liability for its breach simply by hiring an independent contractor to perform it.”
Barry v. Raskov, 232 Cal.App.3d 447, 455 (1991). Here Pacific Gas and Electric reached an agreement with the city to clean up the property and prepare it for sale. The company hired the contractors.
There is also the liability of the city in allowing people so close to the site. One of the more interesting issues would be the potential liability of Lowes for allowing people reportedly to camp out and watch from its property. There were also an assortment of subcontractors who are likely to be pulled into litigation.
The structure itself consisted of two towers measuring 140 feet high that supported four 200,000 gallon tanks. That obviously has a high danger for shrapnel.
I have always been amazed at the use of these demolitions for public entertainment particularly in buildings that used asbestos. While such asbestos is removed, there is no clear threshold for dangerous exposure to asbestos and there is no way to remove all such contamination from a site. While shrapnel injuries are rare, that is due to the level of precaution shown by contractors and the given site. Boilers would appear ideal for producing shrapnel in a demolition operation.
Source: Washington Post