Reyes v. Kosha

Decision Date07 July 1998
Docket NumberNo. D026302,D026302
Citation65 Cal.App.4th 451,76 Cal.Rptr.2d 457
CourtCalifornia Court of Appeals Court of Appeals
Parties, 98 Cal. Daily Op. Serv. 5362, 98 Daily Journal D.A.R. 7501 Manuel REYES et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants, v. Ichiro KOSHA et al., Defendants and Respondents.

Singleton & Associates, Terry Singleton, Horacio Barraza and Thomas M. Fiorello, Escondido, for Plaintiffs and Appellants.

McIntosh, Blay, Box & Gomes, David A. Gomes, Santa Ana, Horvitz & Levy, Peter Abrahams and H. Thomas Watson, Encino, for Defendants and Respondents.

O'NEILL, Associate Justice. **

Humberto Barcenas died and Manuel Reyes was injured as a result of a fire in an encampment occupied by Barcenas, Reyes and other migrant workers on land leased and farmed by defendant Ichiro Kosha (Kosha). Reyes, his wife, and Barcenas's widow and children (collectively plaintiffs) filed the instant action against Kosha individually and

doing business as Kosha Farms, pleading negligence and other theories of liability. The court granted Kosha's motion for summary judgment, primarily on the ground Kosha owed plaintiffs no duty of care. Plaintiffs contend Kosha breached both common law duties and statutory duties imposed by the Employee Housing Act (HEALTH & SAF.CODE, § 170001 et seq.) (the EHA). We conclude there are triable issues of fact as to whether Kosha breached a statutorily recognized duty to provide Reyes and Barcenas safe housing, and whether such breach of duty was a legal cause of Barcenas's death and Reyes's injury. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment as to plaintiffs' causes of action for negligence and negligence per se.


Reyes and Barcenas were laborers on a strawberry farm operated by Kosha and his brother Shig Kosha (Shig). Kosha leased the farm property from a third party. Shig managed the farm's day-to-day operations.

From 1981 through February 1994 Kosha allowed his farm employees to live rent-free in an encampment in a ravine on his leased property. During the farming season, 50 to 90 workers lived in the ravine in shacks made of cardboard, wood and plastic scrap materials. Shig lived in a house at the entrance to the farm property and supervised the farm workers. He allowed the workers to take scrap materials from the farm to use in the construction of their huts. Reyes and Barcenas resided in the camp at the time of the fire.

Shig patrolled the camp to ensure it was kept clean and that only employees of Kosha Farms resided there. He excluded women and all other nonemployees from the camp, including relatives of the resident workers. Kosha assigned each of the camp residents a number and required him to affix it to his hut.

Kosha provided the workers portable toilets and a dumpster on the farm property, but did not provide electricity to the camp. Shig had the workers dig a trench to run a waterline from the farm's irrigation system to the camp where they installed two faucets and a makeshift shower. Shig suggested the camp residents who participated in the construction of the trench should charge the ones who did not a fee of $20. Kosha provided a mailbox where the workers could receive their mail and allowed a caterer to come on the farm to sell food to the workers. The caterer extended credit to the workers and Shig helped him collect his money.

On the night of January 23, 1994, Reyes went to sleep in his hut at about 9 p.m. Some time later, a fire started in Barcenas's hut and spread to Reyes's hut, killing Barcenas and severely injuring Reyes.

Plaintiffs filed the instant action against Kosha, pleading theories of negligence (general negligence, premises liability and negligence per se), nuisance, breach of implied warranty of habitability, intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, civil conspiracy and loss of consortium. Kosha moved for summary judgment or, alternatively, summary adjudication of each of the causes of action in plaintiffs' complaint.

The court granted summary judgment, ruling Kosha owed no common law duty of care "to warn or make safe the conditions in the ravine[ ]" because Reyes and Barcenas "voluntarily chose to live in the ravine, and ... the risk of fire was an obvious risk." The court concluded this absence of duty eliminated plaintiffs' causes of action for negligence, premises liability, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and nuisance. The court found plaintiffs' claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress was without merit because plaintiffs "failed to establish any outrageous conduct on behalf of [Kosha]," and plaintiffs' claim for breach of the implied warranty of habitability was without merit because plaintiffs failed to establish a landlord-tenant relationship. The court concluded plaintiffs could not maintain their conspiracy claim because Kosha breached no duty owed to them and there was no evidence Kosha acted in concert with others who committed wrongful acts against them. Regarding plaintiffs' cause of action for negligence

per se, the court ruled that plaintiffs failed to establish "the violation of [the EHA was] the proximate cause of plaintiffs' injuries."


On appeal from a ruling on a motion for summary judgment or adjudication, the appellate court conducts its own independent review of the moving and opposition papers and applies the same standard as the trial court in determining whether the motion was properly granted. The appellate court is not bound by the trial court's stated reasons for its ruling on the motion, as the appellate court reviews only the ruling and not its rationale. (California Aviation, Inc. v. Leeds (1991) 233 Cal.App.3d 724, 730-731, 284 Cal.Rptr. 687; Lunardi v. Great-West Life Assurance Co. (1995) 37 Cal.App.4th 807, 819, 44 Cal.Rptr.2d 56.)

I. Duty

Plaintiffs contend Kosha owed a duty under the common law and the EHA to maintain the labor camp on his leased premises in a reasonably safe condition.

"The question of 'duty' is decided by the court, not the jury. [Citation.]" (Ballard v. Uribe (1986) 41 Cal.3d 564, 572, fn. 6, 224 Cal.Rptr. 664, 715 P.2d 624.) Duty is not an immutable fact, but rather an expression of policy considerations leading to the legal conclusion that a plaintiff is entitled to a defendant's protection. (Parsons v. Crown Disposal Co. (1997) 15 Cal.4th 456, 472, 63 Cal.Rptr.2d 291, 936 P.2d 70.)

The most important policy consideration in determining whether a duty exists is the foreseeability of injury to another. (Krongos v. Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (1992) 7 Cal.App.4th 387, 394, 9 Cal.Rptr.2d 124; Osborn v. Mission Ready Mix (1990) 224 Cal.App.3d 104, 122, 273 Cal.Rptr. 457.) Unquestionably, the risk of fire in the camp was foreseeable, as the workers lived in highly flammable structures and used an open flame for lighting and heating.

In addition to foreseeability, courts consider the following factors in determining the existence and scope of duty: "(1) the degree of certainty that the plaintiff suffered injury; (2) the proximity between the defendant's conduct and the injury suffered; (3) the moral blame attached to the defendant's conduct; (4) the policy of preventing future harm; (5) the extent of the burden to the defendant and consequences to the community of imposing a duty to exercise care with resulting liability for breach; and (6) the availability of insurance for the risk involved. [Citations.]" (Krongos v. Pacific Gas & Electric Co., supra, 7 Cal.App.4th at pp. 394-395, 9 Cal.Rptr.2d 124; Rowland v. Christian (1968) 69 Cal.2d 108, 113, 70 Cal.Rptr. 97, 443 P.2d 561.)

Each of these factors militates in favor of imposing a duty on Kosha in this case. Plaintiffs' injuries are undisputed and there is a close connection between the harm they suffered and Kosha's allowance or maintenance of the camp on his property. Moral blame attaches generally to the failure to provide habitable living conditions where there is a duty to do so. The policy of preventing the type of harm that occurred has been recognized by the Legislature, which enacted the EHA to protect farm workers from unsafe and unhealthy living conditions provided by employers like Kosha. 2 The Legislature has determined that At oral argument, Kosha contended violation of the EHA does not give rise to a private right of action unless the violation also breaches a common law duty existing independently of the EHA. We need not decide the merit of that contention because we do not view the EHA as creating a new duty of care. In enacting the EHA, the Legislature essentially weighed the policy considerations courts consider in determining whether a duty exists and concluded those considerations militate in favor of imposing a duty on employers and other owners of employee housing to provide housing which is reasonably safe and healthy. In doing so, the Legislature recognized rather than created a duty. The EHA defines the standard of conduct required to satisfy that duty.

those who provide employee housing should bear the burden of ensuring it meets minimum health and safety standards for the protection of its inhabitants and the community. Finally, the risks associated with the maintenance of unsafe employee housing are insurable.

Kosha cites the opinions of this court in Lucas v. Pollock (1992) 7 Cal.App.4th 668, 8 Cal.Rptr.2d 918 (Pollock) and Lucas v. George T.R. Murai Farms, Inc. (1993) 15 Cal.App.4th 1578, 19 Cal.Rptr.2d 436 (Murai ) for the proposition that he owed no duty to protect his workers from the risk of fire in the camp because the risk was obvious to them.

In Pollock, one migrant worker was killed and another was severely injured when their makeshift hut in a migrant worker camp caught fire. The property on which the camp was located was undeveloped and was not used for farming or any other purpose. The owner held the property...

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