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Workers’ Comp Was Exclusive Remedy for Claims Based on Lead Exposure

By Joanne Deschenaux January 14, 2020

A hazardous waste treatment plant employee could not bring a court action for damages against his former employer for injuries he claimed he sustained due to workplace lead exposure, a California appeals court ruled. The employee was limited to remedies available through the workers' compensation system, the court said.

The plaintiff worked at a hazardous waste treatment and storage plant for 29 years. The facility recycled automotive batteries, recovering the lead used in the batteries. The plaintiff was a forklift driver and furnace operator.

On April 24, 2013, the Department of Toxic Substance Control ordered the plant to shut down due to its discharge of illegal amounts of lead into the air, water and soil.

Before operations at the facility were halted, the plaintiff claimed he experienced two health-related incidents at work. Once, he lost consciousness while cleaning one of the facility's furnaces. Another time, also while cleaning one of the furnaces, he felt dizzy, left the furnace, and went to a restroom where he produced a urine stream that he said was black in color.  

In June 2016, more than three years after these two alleged incidents and suspension of operations at the plant, the plaintiff sued the company, seeking damages for injuries he claimed were caused by exposure to lead and other hazardous chemicals. He said his health had been "slowly deteriorating" since operations at the facility were suspended in 2013.

The trial court dismissed the lawsuit before trial, ruling that the plaintiff's claims were precluded by workers' compensation exclusivity principles: An employee who suffers an injury in the course and scope of his or her employment must seek relief through the no-fault statutory workers' compensation scheme and cannot sue in court for compensation. The plaintiff appealed.

General Principles of Workers' Compensation Exclusivity

Courts apply a two-prong test in determining whether an injured employee's claim is pre-empted by the Workers' Compensation Act's exclusive remedy provisions, the court said. First, the injury must arise out of and in the course of the employment.

Second, the acts or events giving rise to the injury must constitute "a risk reasonably encompassed within the compensation bargain."

The court then noted that a long line of California cases has held that workplace safety failures, including those related to exposure to hazardous chemicals, are a risk reasonably encompassed within the compensation bargain. It is not an uncommon aspect of the employment relationship for an employer to know of the existence of a danger to an employee yet fail to take corrective action, the court said. If civil lawsuits were allowed for such employer misconduct, the workers' compensation system would be undermined, the court added.

[SHRM members-only how-to guide: How to Administer a Workers' Compensation Claim]

The plaintiff's complaint alleged that he sustained his injury during the 29 years he worked at the plant. It further claimed he was injured during the course of normal business operations at the plant. The fact that he was allegedly injured by the company's failure to safeguard its employees from hazardous chemicals did not remove his claim from the coverage of the workers' compensation law, the court said.  

Therefore, to maintain his lawsuit, the court continued, the plaintiff had to show that his claims fell within an exception to workers' compensation exclusivity principles.   

One of these exceptions, found in the California Labor Code, provides that an action for damages may be brought where the employee's injury is aggravated by the employer's fraudulent concealment of the existence of the injury and its connection with the employment. In that case, the employer's liability is limited to those damages caused by the aggravation.

The fraudulent concealment exception is "extremely limited," the court said. To maintain a civil action against an employer under the fraudulent concealment exception, a plaintiff must show:

  • The employer knew of the plaintiff's work-related injury.
  • The employer concealed the knowledge from the plaintiff.
  • The injury was aggravated as a result of such concealment.

Allegations that the company knew there were risks to employees from lead and other chemicals was not enough to show fraudulent concealment, the court said. There was no evidence that the company knew that the plaintiff's health issues might have been related to lead exposure at the plant.

There also was no evidence that the company concealed its supposed knowledge of the plaintiff's injury from the plaintiff himself and that this injury was aggravated as a result of such concealment.

Therefore, the plaintiff could not maintain his lawsuit under the state labor code, the court said, ruling that the trial court was correct to dismiss the lawsuit before trial.       

Deville v. Bloch, Calif. Ct. App., No. B291099 (Nov. 21, 2019).

Professional Pointer: Because workers' compensation remedies are limited to medical costs and some lost income, an injured employee may be tempted to sue in court to try to obtain a greater monetary recovery. But because of the exclusivity rule, there are very limited circumstances in which such a lawsuit will be successful. 

Joanne Deschenaux, J.D., is a freelance writer in Annapolis, Md.



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