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Legal Memorandum: Exceptions to an Employer's Tort Immunity

Issue: What are the major exceptions to an employer’s tort immunity under California workers’ compensation law?

Area of Law: Workers Compensation Insurance
Keywords: Workplace personal injury; Causes of action; Employer immunity
Jurisdiction: California
Cited Cases: None
Cited Statutes: Cal. Lab. Code § 3602
Date: 04/01/2005

  Generally, where a worker suffers a personal injury “sustained and arising out of the course of employment” or has an injury collateral to or derivative of such an injury, the employee’s claim against his or her employer is subject to the exclusivity bar of the workers’ compensation statutory scheme.  Charles J. Vacanti M.D., Inc. v. State Comp. Ins. Fund, 14 P.3d 234, 244 (Cal. 2001). 

Thus, to determine if an action at law against the employer is barred, the court first considers whether the injury itself falls within the statutory scheme.  It does not and there is no immunity if the injury does not “arise out of and in the course of employment.”  Id. at 245.  Thus, causes of action that are not derivative of a workplace personal injury are not barred such as:

·         causes of action for economic or contract damages independent of the physical injury;

·         causes of action for fraud;

·         causes of action for wrongful termination; or

·         causes of action for defamation.  Id.

If the injury is a workplace personal injury and ordinarily would fall within the exclusive remedies provision, “then the court considers whether the alleged acts or motives that establish the cause of action fall outside the risks encompassed by the compensation bargain.”  Id.  Only in “exceptional circumstances” is the employer not immune, even for his intentional acts.  Id. at 244.  Generally, if even intentional acts are a “normal” part of the […]

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