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In a ruling that lays some clear ground rules for workplace liability, the California Supreme Court on Monday reversed a $3 million jury verdict against Unocal Corp. and sent the case back to San Francisco Superior Court for a new trial. The justices, in an opinion written by Justice Carlos Moreno, said that the jury had not been given proper instructions when it found Unocal negligent in not disclosing hazardous working conditions at one of its oil refineries near Long Beach, Calif. The high court said landowners who hire independent contractors may be liable if the landowner knew or should have known of a latent or concealed pre-existing hazardous condition on their property, the contractor did not know and could not have reasonably discovered this hazardous condition, and the landowner failed to warn the contractor about this condition. But a new trial is necessary in this case, the court ruled, because “the concealed hazards issue was never properly submitted to the jury.” The jury “made no finding about whether Kinsman’s employer, Burke & Reynolds … knew or should have known of the hazard and whether Unocal was or should have been aware that these contractors did not know of the hazard,” Moreno wrote for the unanimous court in Kinsman v. Unocal, 05 C.D.O.S. 10639. (5th District Justice Dennis Cornell sat by assignment.) In 1999, Ray Kinsman, an independent contract employee who had worked at Unocal and who was diagnosed with terminal, asbestos-induced lung cancer, sued Unocal. He got a $3 million jury verdict, but in 2003, the First District Court of Appeal reversed, stating that Unocal couldn’t be held liable for Kinsman’s cancer without proof that the oil giant concealed hazardous conditions or took actions that contributed to the worker’s injuries.

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