Workers’ Comp Bars Claim That Bullying Led to Employee’s Suicide

By Joanne Deschenaux April 12, 2021
worker performing landscaping

The family of a worker alleging that he committed suicide after experiencing workplace bullying could not bring a wrongful death claim against his employer and supervisor, a California appellate court ruled. Workers' compensation was the exclusive remedy and therefore barred the lawsuit, the court said.

The employee began working for the California Department of Transportation performing landscape maintenance work in the early 2000s. He complained numerous times throughout the years that his co-workers verbally abused and intimidated him by shouting at him, calling him "stupid" and "idiot," using profane language when speaking to him, and making obscene hand gestures at him. In one case, a co-worker shoved him to the ground. That co-worker, however, was subsequently fired for violating the company's workplace violence policy.

According to the lawsuit filed by the employee's family, the repeated ridicule and bullying caused him serious emotional distress, which resulted in him being placed on leave in 2015. Before he was scheduled to return to work, he committed suicide.

His family sued the employer and his supervisor, alleging that their failure to prevent the bullying and ridicule caused his death. The trial court dismissed the lawsuit before trial on the ground that the wrongful death claim was barred because workers' compensation provides the exclusive remedy. His relatives appealed.

Workers' Comp Exclusivity

The appeals court first noted that the California workers' compensation law limits an employee's remedies against an employer for work-related injuries to the compensation provided by the law itself and bars an injured employee from bringing a separate lawsuit for the injuries. Workers' compensation is also the exclusive remedy against fellow employees acting within the scope of their employment. 

The exclusivity rule bars lawsuits based on employer actions that are a normal part of the employment relationship, the court said. Conduct that courts have held to be a normal part of the employment relationship for purposes of workers' compensation exclusivity include yelling, humiliation, and the use of insults and profanities by an employer against an employee, if the conduct involved conflicts arising from the employment relationship.

By contrast, workers' compensation does not bar lawsuits based on certain types of intentional employer conduct, such as criminal acts or illegal discriminatory practices.

The appellate court concluded that the wrongful death lawsuit was clearly barred by the workers' compensation exclusivity rule and affirmed the trial court's decision dismissing the lawsuit.    

The court rejected the relatives' claim that the co-workers' conduct constituted illegal harassment. The court noted that a lawsuit based on harassment in violation of California's Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) would not be barred by the workers' compensation exclusivity rule. However, the court said, the harassment at issue in this case was not the type of conduct FEHA was intended to prohibit.

Most of the harassing episodes involved criticism of the employee's job performance or disagreements about who was to perform certain tasks, the court said. For example, one co-worker verbally lashed out at the decedent during a disagreement about which one of them would drive a work vehicle. Another co-worker shouted profanities at the employee during an argument over who would complete certain work-related paperwork. 

Other incidents involved personality clashes and interpersonal conflicts of the sort that routinely arise in the workplace, the court said, noting that friction between co-workers is a normal risk of employment, and any resulting injury should be remedied through the workers' compensation system.

FEHA makes it unlawful to harass an employee because of race, religious creed, color, national origin, ancestry, physical disability, mental disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, age, sexual orientation, and veteran or military status. The family members did not claim the type of harassment that FEHA prohibits, the court said.  

Coffman v. Dept. of Transportation, Calif. Ct. App., No. H046473 (March 4, 2021).

Professional Pointer: Many behaviors that people would consider to be "bullying" are not illegal in California. To be illegal, the bullying must be motivated by an unlawful reason. The worker must be specifically targeted because of a protected characteristic, such as his or her race or gender. California law does, however, require large employers to include anti-bullying training in their harassment-prevention program.

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



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