Client Alert: Court Narrows Power Press Exception To Workers’ Comp. Exclusivity

In LaFiell Manufactuirng Co. v. Superior Court (Watrous), (No. B254261, filed August 6, 2014) the California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, held an employee injured by a swaging machine from which the employer had removed a protective door could not assert a claim under Labor Code section 4558, because the missing door was not a “point of operation guard.” The injured employee thus was limited to the exclusive remedies prescribed by workers’ compensation law.

Plaintiff was employed by Defendant, LaFiell Manufacturing Company (“LaFiell”), as an operator of a swaging machine. The swaging machine compressed a metal tube to make the end smaller in diameter, thicker, and stronger than the rest of the tube. The swaging machine used dies and hammers to compress the metal tubes which sat in a bed that was several inches from where a shield door had been located. The shield door had been removed by Defendant and replaced with a metal pressure plate that had exposed bolts which fastened the pressure plate in place.

Plaintiff was standing approximately six feet from the swaging machine when a piece of metal hit him in the eye causing serious injuries. Plaintiff brought suit under California Labor Code section 4558, known as the “Power Press exception” to the exclusive remedy rule of the Workers’ Compensation Act. The statute allows an action against the employer for negligence to be maintained concurrently with a claim for workers’ compensation benefits when an employee is injured by an “employer’s knowing removal of, or knowing failure to install, a point of operation guard on a power press….”

Defendant moved for summary judgment on the ground the missing shield door was not a “point of operation guard,” and thus Plaintiff was limited to workers’ compensation remedies. The trial court denied the motion, holding that a triable issue of fact existed as to whether the shield door, which had been removed from the machine by Defendant, was a “point of operation guard.”

The Court of Appeal reversed, holding that the removed door did not constitute a “point of operation guard” as a matter of law. Specifically, the dies and hammers used in the swaging process were located in a bed where the material was being compressed, which was several inches from the door that had been removed, and several feet from where Plaintiff was operating the machine.

After discussing the legislative history of Labor Code section 4558, the Court of Appeal noted a “point of operation guard” has traditionally been understood as “any device or apparatus that keeps worker’s hands or other body parts outside the area where the die shapes material by impact or pressure while the worker is operating the power press.” Here, the removed door contained an opening in its center to allow access to the space where the material is formed, and did not prevent entry of hands and fingers into the space where the dies impart shape to the material. Rather, the point of operation on this swaging machine was in the bed of the machine, where the dies form the shape at the end of the tube. Since the removed door had been located approximately six inches from the bed area, it was not a “point of operation guard” as a matter of law.

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August 11, 2014