Employment Client Alert: Court Crushes Plaintiff’s Attempt To Circumvent Workers’ Compensation Exclusivity

In Lucia Gonzalez v. Seal Methods, Inc., No. B246825, January 24, 2014, (Gonzalez) the California Court of Appeal upheld summary judgment preventing an employee from proceeding at law against her employer for damages from a crushing injury to her hand by a power press. The Second District agreed with the employer, Seal Methods, that wooden blocks do not constitute a point of operation guard, the removal or absence of which is an essential element in forging an exception to the rule of workers’ compensation exclusivity.

Gonzalez operated a power press in her work at Seal Methods. The press shapes material by pressing against or through the material and utilized a two-hand activator system, so the operator’s hands would not be in the strike zone when it operated. Gonzalez was injured when the press closed on her hand. She offered no evidence to suggest that the employer bypassed, removed or tampered with the two-hand activator system. However, Gonzalez claimed that the operation manual for the press required the use of safety blocks whenever the operator’s hands came within the point of operation zone, and that the requirement of blocks constituted a “point of operation guard.” Without conceding that the blocks were required by the manual, the employer urged the court to find that such blocks do not constitute a point of operation guard as contemplated by the relevant statutes.

Workers’ compensation provides the exclusive remedy for employees who suffer an injury arising out of and occurring in the course of the employment. Cal. Lab. Code §3600. However, this exclusivity rule contains several exceptions, including one that allows an employee or his or her dependents to bring an action against the employer “where the employee’s injury or death is proximately caused by the employer’s knowing removal of, or knowing failure to install, a point of operation guard on a power press, and this removal or failure to install is specifically authorized by the employer under conditions known by the employer to create a probability of serious injury or death.” Cal. Lab. Code §4558(b).

The court in Gonzalez noted that section 4558(b) does not provide a definition of a point of operation guard. However, the Court inferred from the statute’s definitions of “failure to install” and “removal,” that a point of operation guard is permanently attached to a power press, and is either installed by the manufacturer or provided to the employer to be installed. In support of its conclusion that the blocks, which plaintiff alleged were left off the machine, did not meet the statutory criteria, the Court explained that the legislative intent was to prevent serious injuries resulting from an employer willfully removing or failing to install a guard. Bringham v. CTS Corp., 231 Cal. App.3d 56 (1991) citing Ceja v. J.R. Wood, Inc.,196 Cal.App.3d 1372 (1987).

The Gonzalez decision offers another example of the courts’ consistently conservative interpretation of California Labor Code Section 4558. The California courts continue to resist efforts by the plaintiffs bar to expand this exception to workers’ compensation exclusivity.

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January 28, 2014