Proving a Sudden and Extraordinary Employment Injury Must be Rock Solid

In State Compensation Insurance Fund v. WCAB and Jose Guzman, (H044300, filed 1/30/18, publication order 2/23/18), the California Court of Appeal, Sixth Appellate District, rejected Applicant’s argument that a psychiatric injury was caused by a “sudden and extraordinary employment condition” which would qualify for benefits though he worked less than six months for his employer.

Jose Guzman (“Guzman”) was operating a compactor packing soil on an incline when the compactor struck a rock, rose up, and caused Guzman to fall backward and the compactor to fall on him. He alleged to have injured his low back and psyche as a result of the incident. However, he worked for Carmel Valley Construction for less than six months at the time of the incident. In order to obtain compensation for a psychiatric injury, Labor Code section 3208.3(d) requires that the employment have lasted at least 6 months, though the employment need not be continuous. An exception to 3208.3(d) allows an injured employee to prove the injury was a sudden and extraordinary employment event. Guzman argued that in his experience the injurious event was sudden and extraordinary, entitling him to indemnity for his psychiatric injury.

Guzman had operated a compactor as part of his normal job duties for 12 years before working at Carmel Valley Construction. He claimed he had not previously utilized a compactor on a slope, except for a half hour before the incident. He testified that he had never heard of a compactor falling on anyone and he never thought there was any risk of injury while using the compactor. The WCJ concluded that “having a compactor fall on top of an employee is not something that would reasonably be expected to occur. This type of injury is not a frequent, regular, or routine part of the job.” Therefore, the WCJ concluded that the injury was neither anticipated or foreseeable, and Guzman could recover for his psychiatric injury.

The court of appeal reversed the WCAB. It adopted the definition of sudden and extraordinary provided by the Fourth District in Matea v. WCAB. Such an event is “other than a regular or routine employment event or condition, that is uncommon, unusual and occurred unexpectedly.” The appeal court in Guzman held that the applicant failed to meet the burden of proving his injury resulted from a sudden and extraordinary employment condition. He failed to establish that it was uncommon, unusual, and totally unexpected for a rock to be in soil, for a compactor to rise up when striking a rock or for an operator to become unbalanced and to fall when the compactor rises on a 45 degree hillside.

In Guzman the court continues to fulfill the intent of the legislature to place limitations on psychiatric claims. Still, it should be recognized that these cases are very fact specific and the employer must be prepared to rebut allegations that the injurious event was uncommon, unusual, totally unexpected, and sudden.

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March 12, 2018