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Investigation Finds Loophole in California Workers' Comp System

Posted by Emily Ruby | Aug 21, 2023 | 0 Comments

An investigation by the local news site, Voice of OC, has found that when Orange County employees are injured by the sheriff's department, they cannot get information on what happened to the officers involved, and they cannot sue the department under state law. The article gives the example of one employee working at her desk in John Wayne Airport who was accidentally shot and injured by a police officer.

Understanding California's Workers' Comp Laws

The employee thought she would be "well taken care of," but that was not what occurred, she said. Under California's workers' compensation laws, employees cannot sue their employers when they are injured on the job in most cases. In exchange, employers are required to have workers' comp insurance, which pays for the injured employees' medical bills and a portion of their lost wages.

This can sometimes work favorably for employees who don't have to prove their employer's fault in order to get the money they need for medical and other expenses. While this arrangement looks great on paper, there has been an ongoing debate over what should be covered as part of workers' comp benefits.

Recently, this debate was triggered after the 2015 San Bernardino terrorist attack when multiple county employees were forced to go through the workers' comp system for medical assistance for their workplace injuries. However, there was a fight between county leaders and injured employees over the amount the county should have paid them.

This led to a new law in October 2017, which requires that employees who are involved in an act of terrorism must receive "accessible advocacy services" immediately under the law. But, that did not change things for workers like the injured airport employee who was shot by another county employee, in this case a police officer. Because the county employed both the officer and the staff member, the injured employee could not pursue a lawsuit against the department.

Law Works Against Employees

Because of "exclusive remedy state laws," the airport employee said she was unable to seek legal remedies for what happened to her. There are exceptions to those laws, but they apply only in cases where an employer covers up an injury, delays the workers' attempt to seek medical attention or intentionally injures the employee.  While workers can still receive compensation for their medical expenses, they may not get significant compensation, which might particularly be disheartening when the injuries are severe or catastrophic. For those wondering, if I get injured on the job can I sue my employer, the answer might not be as straightforward as you think. Consulting with a knowledgeable attorney is highly advised.

Voice of OC reports that the employee injured at John Wayne Airport underwent four major surgeries to piece her arm back together and one year of recovery. Nearly two years after her injury, the she received a little over $200,000 to cover problems that occur as a result of her injury over the rest of her life. She could not seek compensation for pain and suffering or other damages as she might have in a personal injury lawsuit against someone who had negligently caused her harm.

In another case, a deputy was injured after a sheriff K-9 attacked him, tearing open his arm and leaving him with permanent nerve damage. While the deputy sued the county, he was forced to settle after the exclusive remedy law became an obstacle for him to seek compensation. After settling his workers' comp case in December 2021, the officer reopened the case three months later to argue for more money after her post-traumatic stress disorder became worse.

Exceptions to Workers' Comp No-Fault System

There are five basic exceptions to the workers' comp no-fault system where you do have the right to file a lawsuit against your employer:

  • The first exception to the workers' compensation exclusivity rule is for the instances where your employer intentionally assaults you or intentionally causes you injury or harm.
  • The second exception is when your employer does not have workers' compensation insurance or fails to provide it. Examples of such situations are when employers misclassify full-time employees as independent contractors.
  • The third exception is when your employer knows that you have been exposed to a hazardous situation such as chemical exposure, but doesn't tell you or makes an effort to hide that information from you.
  • Another major exception is known as "dual capacity," which means you cannot sue your employer for injuries that occur on the job, but you can sue your employer if the injuries stem from something other than your employment. For example, if you work in a supermarket and are injured on the job, you may not be able to sue your employer, but if you are shopping when you are off duty and are injured in a slip and fall accident due to the store's negligence, you can file a personal injury lawsuit seeking compensation.
  • The fifth exception is for operators of a power press. If your employer does something to make the machine less safe such as removing a safety guard, you may be able to sue your employer.

Additional information can be found by visiting our page on third party lawsuits in workers compensation.

Why You Need an Experienced Work Injury Lawyer

The workers' comp system can be extremely complex and challenging to navigate. If you have been injured on the job and are not sure whether or not you can sue your employer to receive fair and full compensation, an experienced Los Angeles work injury lawyer at Greenberg and Ruby can help you better understand your legal rights and options. Call us today for a free, comprehensive and confidential consultation.


About the Author

Emily Ruby

2022 "Women in Law" Award Winner, Emily Ruby, specializes in complex cases, many of which involve catastrophic injuries and deaths. Mrs. Ruby has personally obtained more than $100 Million in compensation for her clients with an impressive 97.4% success rate and is a graduate of the prestigious CAALA Trial Academy. She was selected as one of Forbes' Best Wrongful Death Lawyers and is a writer for Advocate Magazine.


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