Jury Could Reasonably Find that Employee’s Psychological Injuries Resulted from Employer’s Decision to Stage Mock Robbery and Were Outside the Realm of the California Workers’ Compensation Exclusivity Rule

In an unpublished opinion, a California Court of Appeal addressed whether workers’ compensation served as the exclusive remedy for an employee psychologically harmed by her participation in a staged mock robbery. She was not aware it had been a training exercise.  On appeal, the issue was whether the jury had properly been given instructions about the workers’ compensation exclusivity rule.

The plaintiff employee of West Kern Water District worked as a cashier at the district’s office. While employees received some training on how to respond to a robbery, supervisors decided to test the response of employees to a staged robbery.  As part of the mock robbery, one of the district managers entered the office in a mask and demanded money from the employee, saying he had a gun. The employee victim had not been notified of the mock robbery, and she handed over money. She underwent treatment for psychiatric harm. She brought a claim for assault and intentional infliction of emotional distress.  A jury awarded her $360,000.

The trial court denied defendant West Kern Water District’s motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, but it granted their motion for a new trial on the ground that the jury had received an inappropriate instruction on the workers’ compensation exclusivity rule. The employee and the defendants appealed.

On appeal, the employee argued that the jury instruction on workers’ compensation should have been given. This instruction was based on the case of Fermino v. Fedco, Inc. (1994), 7 Cal.4th 701, which held that employer conduct falls outside the scope of the workers’ compensation scheme when an employer steps outside their proper role or participates in conduct that is unrelated to the employment. The employee contended that her employer’s conduct fell outside the scope of employment.

The California appellate court stated that the workers’ compensation exclusivity rule provides that an injury sustained by an employee that arises out of and in the course of their employment is compensable only through a workers’ compensation award, rather than by a tort judgment.  The rule is set forth in various sections of the Labor Code.

In this case, the definitions of an injury “arising out of” and “in the course of” employment were separate requirements of the workers’ compensation exclusivity rule. For the rule to apply, the court stated that an employee must be injured while performing job tasks in the workplace at work, and the work must be a contributing cause of the injury.

For intentional torts, the court stated that California law is complicated.  Claims for injuries that take place under the conditions of compensation set forth in the workers’ compensation exclusivity rule cannot be pursued in a tort action. In other words, some injuries caused by intentional torts are subject to the workers’ compensation system.

The appellate court stated that the trial court had mistakenly held the case fell within the scope of the Workers’ Compensation Act, and the issue was whether an exception applied. In fact, the appeals court made clear that simply because an injury takes place at work, during working hours, does not mean it falls under the exclusivity rule. The court stated there must be industrial causation, which means that the work was a contributing cause of the injury. In this case, the employee’s complaint did not state that the work was in fact a contributing cause of the injury.

Noting the rule that an employer’s conduct falls outside the realm of workers’ compensation when they engage in conduct unrelated to the employment, the court stated that if a jury determined that conducting the mock robbery was not within the employer’s role, the jury may also find that participating, as a victim, in the mock robbery was not part of the employee’s work.

The court reversed the order granting a new trial and affirmed the order denying the motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict.

At Sharifi Firm, our skilled attorneys help victims of workplace accidents throughout Southern California in their claims for compensation. We provide a free, confidential consultation and can be reached by calling 866-422-7222.

More Blog Posts:

California Court Holds Employee’s Negligence Claim Against Employer Barred by Workers’ Compensation Act, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, July 5, 2016

California Court Provides Leave to Amend Complaint When Plaintiff Potentially Alleged Non-Preempted Claim Under Workers Compensation Act, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, January 7, 2016

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