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Lefiell Manufacturing Co v. the Superior Court of Los Angeles County

August 20, 2012

LEFIELL MANUFACTURING CO., PETITIONER,
v.
THE SUPERIOR COURT OF LOS ANGELES COUNTY, RESPONDENT;
O'NEIL WATROUS ET AL., REAL PARTIES IN INTEREST.



Ct.App. 2/3 B226240 Los Angeles County Super. Ct. No. VC055585 Judge: Yvonne T. Sanchez

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Baxter, J.

Where an employee is injured in the course and scope of his or her employment, workers' compensation is generally the exclusive remedy of the employee and his or her dependents against the employer. (Lab. Code, §§ 3600, subd. (a), 3602.)*fn1 The "exclusivity rule" is based upon a presumed compensation bargain: "[T]he employer assumes liability for industrial personal injury or death without regard to fault in exchange for limitations on the amount of that liability. The employee is afforded relatively swift and certain payment of benefits to cure or relieve the effects of industrial injury without having to prove fault but, in exchange, gives up the wider range of damages potentially available in tort." (Shoemaker v. Myers (1990) 52 Cal.3d 1, 16.)

There are, however, limited statutory exceptions to the exclusivity rule that authorize the injured worker to seek to augment the workers' compensation benefits by bringing an action at law for damages against the employer. (See §§ 3602, 3706, & 4558.) One such exception is found in section 4558, the "power press exception." Section 4558 authorizes an injured worker to bring a civil action for tort damages against his or her employer where the injuries were "proximately caused by the employer's knowing removal of, or knowing failure to install, a point of operation guard on a power press," where the "manufacturer [had] designed, installed, required or otherwise provided by specification for the attachment of the guards and conveyed knowledge of the same to the employer." (§ 4558, subds. (b) & (c).)

In this case, a worker injured while operating a power press without a point of operation guard brought a civil suit against his employer under the power press exception that included a claim for loss of consortium on behalf of his spouse, predicated on the facts allegedly establishing the section 4558 violation. The issue before us on review concerns only the viability of the spouse's loss of consortium claim. Section 4558 contains express language limiting standing to bring an action under the power press exception to the employee "or his or her dependents in the event of the employee's death." (§ 4558, subd. (b).) Here, the worker's injuries did not result in his death. The Court of Appeal recognized the spouse's claim for loss of consortium fell outside the express language of section 4558 and was therefore unauthorized under the power press exception to the exclusivity rule. The court further recognized the claim was barred at law by the derivative injury doctrine because it was derivative of, and therefore dependent on, the employee's physical injury or disability, and was for that reason subject to the workers' compensation law's broad exclusivity rule. (Snyder v. Michael's Stores, Inc. (1997) 16 Cal.4th 991, 997 (Snyder).)

The Court of Appeal nonetheless concluded the spouse's loss of consortium claim as pleaded in the civil action remained viable. The court believed that because section 4558 authorized the injured worker to sue his employer in a court of law for his power press injuries, the claims of both the worker and his dependent spouse fell outside the workers' compensation system altogether, and accordingly, the exclusivity rule did not apply or bar the spouse's loss of consortium claim. We granted the employer's petition for review to determine whether the spouse of an injured worker may claim damages for loss of consortium in an action at law brought by the injured worker against the employer pursuant to section 4558.

As we shall explain, notwithstanding the availability of a civil cause of action for workers who suffer power press injuries, claims arising from the industrial accident that caused those injuries fundamentally remain compensable under the workers' compensation system. Consequently, under settled principles of workers' compensation law, the exclusivity rule bars a dependent spouse's claim for loss of consortium. The employer's demurrer to the loss of consortium cause of action below therefore should have been sustained. Accordingly, we shall reverse that portion of the judgment of the Court of Appeal denying the employer's petition for writ of mandate to overturn the order overruling its demurrer to the loss of consortium claim, and otherwise affirm.

Factual and Procedural Background

O'Neil Watrous (employee or worker) and Nidia Watrous (spouse) (collectively, plaintiffs) filed a civil action against LeFiell Manufacturing Company (employer or petitioner) for injuries suffered by employee while operating a "FENN 5f" swaging machine while working for employer. The swaging machine is a power press machine within the meaning of section 4558.*fn2

The operative complaint seeks damages for negligence (first cause of action), products liability (second cause of action), and a violation of section 4558*fn3 (fourth cause of action). In the third cause of action, employee's spouse seeks damages for loss of consortium. She incorporated all the other causes of action alleged in the complaint, and alleges she has been deprived of employee's services in the care and management of their home and family, and of his "necessary duties as a husband."

Employer filed a demurrer to the complaint, asserting the employee's causes of action for negligence and products liability were barred by the exclusivity rule of the workers' compensation laws. Employer also contended employee's spouse lacked standing to pursue or join in any cause of action for tort damages arising from the power press injury, and that her loss of consortium claim for damages was likewise barred by the exclusivity rule (§ 3600, subd. (a)), and did not fall within any of the recognized statutory exceptions to that rule.

The trial court overruled employer's demurrer to employee's causes of action for negligence and products liability. As to employee's spouse, the trial court sustained the demurrer to all causes of action except her claim for loss of consortium, concluding that because employee had pleaded sufficient facts under section 4558 to support the power press exception to the exclusivity rule, his spouse likewise could properly assert a claim at law for loss of consortium in the employee's section 4558 action.

Employer petitioned the Court of Appeal for a writ of mandate to compel the trial court to sustain its demurrer to employee's causes of action for negligence and products liability without leave to amend, based on the holding in Award Metals, Inc. v. Superior Court (1991) 228 Cal.App.3d 1128 (Award Metals). That decision holds that under the language of the power press exception of section 4558, an injured employee is not permitted to bring an action at law on causes of action that require a lesser showing than that required to establish all the elements of the power press exception under section 4558, because "[i]f such action cannot be brought on its own where the facts fail to establish all the elements of the power press exception under section 4558, it follows that individual causes of action against an employer [such as negligence or products liability] which do not meet the [stricter proof] requirements of section 4558 cannot be bootstrapped onto a civil action for damages which is properly brought under [the power press exception to the exclusivity rule.]" (Award Metals, at p. 1134.)

Agreeing with employer's argument based on the holding in Award Metals, supra, 228 Cal.App.3d 1128, the Court of Appeal issued a peremptory writ of mandate directing the trial court to vacate its order overruling employer's demurrer to employee's negligence and products liability causes of action, and to enter a new order sustaining employer's demurrer to those causes of action without leave to amend. That aspect of the Court of Appeal's judgment is not contested, and as such, shall be affirmed.

Employer further petitioned the Court of Appeal for a writ of mandate "to command the trial court to sustain the demurrer to [employee's] spouse's claim for loss of consortium damages without leave to amend, because that cause of action is barred by the exclusivity rule in the workers' compensation laws, and the cause of action does not fall within the power press exception." The Court of Appeal disagreed, concluding spouse may plead a claim at law for damages for loss of consortium because such a claim, like the employee's own civil action for his power press injuries under section 4558, fell outside the workers' compensation laws and hence was not barred by the exclusivity rule.

We granted the employer's petition for review, limited to the question whether the spouse of an injured worker may claim damages for loss of consortium in an action at law ...


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