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Wright v. State

California Court of Appeals, First District, Second Division

January 30, 2015

MONNIE WRIGHT, Plaintiff and Appellant,
v.
STATE OF CALIFORNIA, Defendant and Respondent.

Marin County Super. Ct. No. 1200705, Trial Judge: Honorable M. Lynn Duryee.

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COUNSEL

The Veen Firm, Anthony Label, Andje M. Medina; Smith & McGinty, Daniel U. Smith and Valerie T. McGinty for Plaintiff and Appellant.

Kamala D. Harris, Attorney General, Kristin G. Hogue, Assistant Attorney General, John P. Devine, Troy B. Overton and Grayson W. Marshall, III, Deputy Attorneys General, for Defendant and Respondent.

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OPINION

RICHMAN, J.

Plaintiff Monnie Wright was a correctional officer at San Quentin State Prison (San Quentin), who lived on the San Quentin premises, in a unit he rented from his employer, defendant State of California (State). Wright was injured when he fell in the course of his lengthy walk from his home to his actual place of work. Following his injury, Wright sought workers’ compensation, and received it. He thereafter filed suit against the State, which moved for summary judgment on the ground that workers’ compensation was Wright’s exclusive remedy, an argument based on the “premises line” rule, which provides that the employment relationship commences once the employee enters the employer’s premises. The trial court agreed and granted the motion.

We reverse, concluding that it was error to hold Wright’s tort claim barred solely because he was on his employer’s premises at the time of his fall, particularly where Wright lived on those very premises.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

In 1997, Wright began working at San Quentin. The following year, he moved into a State-owned rental unit within the gated area of the San Quentin grounds. Living there was voluntary on Wright’s part: it was not a condition of his employment with the State, and he paid market rate rent, receiving no discount or other employment benefit for living on the property.

Wright’s original lease for the unit required that he obtain a “broad policy of comprehensive coverage of public liability insurance, naming the State as the insured.” The policy was to be issued by an insurance company acceptable to the State and insure “against loss or liability caused by or connected with [Wright’s] occupation and use of said premises under [the] rental/lease agreement.” The lease operable at the time of Wright’s injury contained an indemnity clause that provided as follows: “Owner will not be liable for any damage or injury to Tenant, or any other person, or to any property, occurring on the premises, or in common areas, unless such damage is the legal result of the negligence or willful misconduct of the Owner, his or her agents, or employees. Tenant agrees to hold Owner harmless from any claims for damages, no matter how caused, except for injury or damages caused by negligence or willful misconduct of the Owner, his or her agents, or employees.”

Wright’s walk from his residence to the prison building where he carried out his work duties required him to walk approximately 10 feet to a common

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area staircase, [1] at the bottom of which were two pillars painted with the address numbers for Wright’s unit and a neighboring unit. Wright would descend that staircase, cross a street, walk through a park, descend another staircase, walk down a path, descend another staircase, cross another street, and then traverse a sidewalk in front of the sally port, [2] all of which occurred on State property.[3] Once inside the sally port, he walked through a series of security doors to enter the secured perimeter, and then walked to his assigned work building in the South Block and then to the Donner Unit, where he signed in for work.

On December 14, 2010 at approximately 5:30 a.m., Wright left his rental unit and began his walk to the Donner Unit to begin his 6:00 a.m. shift. As he neared the bottom of the first staircase just outside his unit, a concrete step allegedly collapsed beneath him, and he fell.

On December 20, 2010, Wright filed a claim for workers’ compensation benefits for injuries resulting from the fall. He received benefits in the form of medical expenses and disability payments. And in July 2012, he went on early disability retirement.

PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

The Pleadings

Wright filed a complaint against the State, asserting one cause of action, for premises liability. He alleged that he “fell and was injured when a defectively constructed and dangerously maintained stair crumbled beneath him.”

The State filed an answer, followed by a first amended answer, generally denying Wright’s allegations. The answer also set forth numerous affirmative defenses, including this as affirmative defense no. 21: Wright’s injuries “occurred, if at all, because of conduct arising out of, or in the course of employment or voluntary service or rehabilitative work for a public agency” and his tort claim was “therefore barred as Worker’s Compensation is the exclusive remedy....”

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The Motion For Summary Judgment

The State moved for summary judgment on the ground that Wright’s claim was barred by the workers’ compensation exclusive remedy rule. According to the State, Wright was a State employee and was injured while walking on State-owned premises to his work location. It contended that the going and coming rule-which generally provides that an employee who is injured en route to or from work is not entitled to worker’s compensation benefits-did not preclude workers’ compensation coverage for Wright’s injuries because he was injured on his employee’s premises, thereby falling within the premises line rule, an exception to the going and coming rule. The State also noted that Wright had received over $137, 000 in workers’ compensation benefits which, it submitted, constituted a “representation that the injuries he attributes to the incident arose out of and occurred in the course of his employment with the State of California.”

Wright opposed the State’s motion, arguing the State failed to meet its initial burden of showing that his claim was barred by the workers’ compensation exclusive remedy rule. As he explained it, “The mere fact that the injury occurred on the employer’s premises is not the sole test of compensability. The injury must be one arising out of and in the course of the employment.” And, Wright contended, there existed a question of fact whether he was injured in the course of his employment. According to Wright, at the time he was injured, he was commuting to his work location-or as he put it, the "business premises"—such that the going and coming rule barred workers’ compensation coverage. Wright also disputed that the premises line applied, arguing he had not left his residence and arrived at his work premises.

Wright also argued that the “bunkhouse rule, ” and the principle underlying it, precluded summary judgment. This argument relied in part on Vaught v. State of California (2007) 157 Cal.App.4th 1538, 1545 [69 Cal.Rptr.3d 605] (Vaught), which summarized the bunkhouse rule as follows: “When an employee is injured while living on the employer’s premises, the course of employment requirement in [Labor Code] section 3600, subdivision (a), is satisfied if the employment contract of the employee contemplates, or the work necessity requires, the employee to reside on the employer’s premises.” Here, by contrast, Wright was not required to live in the State owned housing, and his employment contract did not contemplate he would do so. Thus, he contended, he did not fall within the bunkhouse rule and, consequently, was not injured in the course of employment.

Wright also argued that the lease agreement he signed when he rented the residence showed that the State did not intend he would be covered by

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workers’ compensation while residing in the residence. Finally, Wright represented that he was not seeking double recovery, as the State would receive a credit against any tort recovery he might obtain that overlapped with the workers’ compensation proceeds he was previously awarded.

The State filed a reply, asserting that it was “undisputed that (1) Officer Wright was an employee of the State of California at San Quentin State Prison; (2) whose alleged injuries occurred while he was walking on prison grounds; (3) to the prison area where he was to begin his work duties.” Under these facts, the State contended, the premises line rule dictated that Wright’s injuries fell within the scope of workers’ compensation. Wright’s argument to the contrary, the State complained, sought “to eviscerate 40 years of expansive workers’ rights in California and take this Court back to Lochner-era[4] Pennsylvania in his attempt to carve out an exception to pursue this civil action and simultaneously take advantage of the security and ‘relatively swift and certain payments of [workers’ compensation] benefits’ he has received, and continues to receive. Not ...


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