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People v. Superior Court (Solus Industrial Innovations, LLC)

California Court of Appeal, Fourth District, Third Division

February 24, 2014

The PEOPLE, Petitioner,
v.
The SUPERIOR COURT of Orange County, Respondent; Solus Industrial Innovations, LLC, et al., Real Parties in Interest.

Original proceedings; petition for a writ of mandate to challenge an order of the Superior Court of Orange County, Kim Garlin Dunning, Judge. Petition Denied. (Super. Ct. No. 30-2012-00581868).

COUNSEL

Tony Rackauckas, District Attorney, and Kelly A. Roosevelt, Deputy District Attorney, for Petitioner.

No appearance for Respondent.

Jones Day, Brian A. Sun and Frederick D. Friedman, Los Angeles, for Real Parties in Interest.

Amy D. Martin and Kathryn J. Woods, Los Angeles, for the Department of Industrial Relations Division of Occupational Safety and Health as Amicus Curiae on behalf of the People.

[168 Cal.Rptr.3d 287] OPINION

RYLAARSDAM, ACTING P.J.

In this case we are called on to interpret the effect of Labor Code section 6315, subdivision (g), which specifies that in cases involving serious injury to five or more employees in the workplace, or the death of an employee, and where a formal investigation by the Division of Occupational Safety and Health (the Division) was mandated, the results of that investigation " shall be referred in a timely manner ... to the appropriate prosecuting authority having jurisdiction for appropriate action."

Petitioner, the Orange County District Attorney, contends that when such a case is referred to him, he has standing to pursue claims for both criminal and civil penalties against the responsible parties. In this case, he sued respondents Solus Industrial Innovations, Emerson Power Transmission Corp. and Emerson Electric Co. (collectively Solus), alleging various civil violations, including two causes of action based Labor Code sections 6428 and 6429. Solus contends those two causes of action are improper, because while the district attorney has plenary power to pursue criminal penalties where appropriate, he has no power to pursue civil penalties unless specifically authorized by statute to do so. These two Labor Code statutes include no such authorization. Based on that contention, Solus demurred to the two causes of action in the trial court, arguing the district attorney had no standing to enforce the underlying statutes.

The trial court agreed with Solus and consequently sustained its demurrer to the two causes of action based on the Labor Code without leave to amend. However, the court also certified this issue as presenting a controlling issue of law suitable for early appellate review under Code of Civil Procedure section 166.1. The district attorney then filed a petition for writ of mandate with this court, asking us to review the trial court's ruling. After we summarily denied the petition, the Supreme Court granted review and transferred the case back to us with directions to issue an order to show cause.

We issued the order to show cause and now conclude the trial court's ruling was correct on the merits. The statutory scheme for enforcement of workplace safety standards reflects that the Division is the governmental agency responsible for civil enforcement of the Labor Code provisions, and that mandatory referral of serious cases to prosecutors is primarily intended to facilitate criminal prosecution where appropriate. We consequently deny the petition.

FACTS

As is required when we review the propriety of the trial court's ruling on a demurrer, " ‘ we treat the demurrer as admitting all material facts properly pleaded, but do not assume the truth of contentions, deductions or conclusions of law.’ " ( West v. JPMorgan Chase Bank, N.A. (2013) 214 Cal.App.4th 780, 792, 154 Cal.Rptr.3d 285.)

Solus makes plastics at an Orange County manufacturing facility. In 2007, Solus installed an electric water heater intended for residential use at the facility. In March 2009, that water heater exploded, killing two workers instantly in what the district attorney refers to as an " untimely and horrific death."

After the incident, the Division opened an investigation and determined the explosion had been caused by a failed safety valve and the lack of " any other suitable safety feature on the heater" due to " manipulation and misuse." Based on the Division's investigation, it charged Solus with five " ‘ [s]erious' " violations of title 8 of the California Code of Regulations in an administrative [168 Cal.Rptr.3d 288] proceeding, including violations of: " (1) section 467(a) for failure to provide a proper safety valve on the heater; (2) section 3328(a) for permitting the unsafe operation of the water heater; (3) section 3328(b) for improperly maintaining the water heater; (4) section 3328(f) for failing to use good engineering practices when selecting and using the unfit residential water heater in the extrusion operations; and (5) section 3328(h) for permitting unqualified and untrained personnel to operate and ...


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