California Court of Appeals Affirms Workers’ Compensation Act Applies When Substantial Cause of Injury is Work-Related

In a recent California Court of Appeals case, the court addressed whether a claim for an injury, potentially separate from a contributing work-related condition, can be brought against an employer in a civil action.  Typically, work-related injuries are covered by the California Workers’ Compensation Act, and injured employees are barred from bringing an action in tort against the employer. In this case, Lario Melendrez worked for 24 years for Ameron International Corporation (Ameron), where he was exposed to asbestos. In 2011, Mr. Melendrez died of asbestos-related mesothelioma. Mr. Melendrez’s survivors filed a complaint for wrongful death against Ameron, alleging that Mr. Melendrez had been exposed to workplace asbestos and also asbestos at home, since he was permitted to take waste or scrap pipe home. In the 1970s, Mr. Melendrez would bring pipe home as frequently as possible to make flowerpots and add to his patio. Ameron left the state in 1985, and Mr. Melendrez’s employment ended. Years later, he was diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma. The cause of this mesothelioma was determined to be his exposure to asbestos.

The plaintiffs brought a lawsuit against Ameron, alleging wrongful death, and Ameron moved for summary judgment, on the ground that the Workers’ Compensation Act is the sole and exclusive remedy. The trial court granted their motion for summary judgment.

The plaintiffs alleged that the grant of summary judgment was in error, since Mr. Melendrez’s injury included exposure to asbestos from working with pipe on his own at home. They also challenged the award of expert fees, in the amount of $80,719.

On appeal, the plaintiffs argued that Ameron must show that Mr. Melendrez’s separate exposure to the asbestos arose out of and in the course of his employment. Using pipe at home was not in the course and scope of his employment, and according to the plaintiffs, workers’ compensation should not cover the contribution to his mesothelioma by his home exposure.

The California Workers’ Compensation Act provides a remedy against an employer for work-related injuries. This exclusive remedy is a “compensation bargain,” the court stated, meaning that the employer takes on liability for work-related injuries as well as deaths, without regard to fault. While the employer’s liability is limited, the employee is guaranteed payment of benefits but gives up a potentially larger range of damages available in tort.

Labor Code Section 3600, the Workers’ Compensation Act, requires that the injury be linked causally to the employment. The injury must occur in the course of the employment, which typically refers to time and place. And the injury must arise by reason of the employment, or “out of” the employment.

The court stated that workers’ compensation covers an injury if a substantial contributing cause of injury arises out of and in the course of employment. This is the case even if another, nonindustrial cause also contributed to the injury.  Since the statutory proximate cause language is less restrictive than tort law, it favors awards of employee benefits.

Here, a substantial contributing cause of Mr. Melendrez’s disease was his work-related exposure to asbestos.  His exposure to asbestos while working with scrap pipe at home did not create another injury, separate from his workers’ compensation coverage.  In fact, the injury of mesothelioma caused by asbestos exposure is covered by workers’ compensation.

An injury covered by workers’ compensation precludes a civil action and recovery for another contributing injury. The court stated that this rule is consistent with the provision that all injuries “collateral to or derivative of” an injury are compensable by the Workers’ Compensation Act.   Here, any injury that Mr. Melendrez suffered from working with pipe at home was collateral to or derivative of the injury caused by his exposure to asbestos at work.

The court did discuss two cases in which an injury was held to be outside the conditions of workers’ compensation coverage. But in the case at hand, a single disease had an industrial cause and was covered by workers’ compensation.

Finally, the court stated that the rule of liberal construction requires that the court liberally construe the laws in favor of awarding workers’ compensation. The appeals court held that the trial court properly granted summary judgment and that the plaintiffs’ lawsuit was barred by workers’ compensation exclusivity.

At Sharifi Firm, we represent individuals in workplace injury claims against responsible parties. Contact us at 866-422-7222 for a free consultation.

More Blog Posts:

California Court of Appeals Reviews Summary Judgment in Favor of Doctors and Healthcare System in Professional Negligence Lawsuit, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, August 24, 2015

California Court of Appeals Rules that Statute of Limitations is Tolled Upon Payment in Medical Malpractice Action, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, August 20, 2015


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