Workers’ Compensation and Product Liability

The workers’ compensation system has an extensive system of legislation determining what type of injury is eligible under the system.  Workers’ compensation legislation also provides that the system is a “no-fault” system.  This means that the employee is not obligated to prove that the employer’s negligent or intentional conduct was the direct or indirect cause of the conditions that lead to the work-related injury.  The system also limits the ways in which an injured employee can seek to recover; an employee is generally prevented from filing a civil suit in court while also pursuing recovery through workers’ compensation.  One of the exceptions regarding this rule involves product liability.

Product liability actions mean that the manufacturer of a product can be held liable in some situations when the equipment malfunctions and causes injury.  Product liability comes into play with workers’ compensation most often when an employee is injured by defective equipment in the workplace.  The employer can then seek to recover or receive reimbursement from the manufacturer for the costs the employer has had to pay through workers’ compensation.  For example, if an employee is badly burned when an oven malfunctions and the worker then files for workers’ compensation, the employer can then seek to recover the money it had to pay to the employee from the manufacturer of the oven.

Another way that products liability can figure into workers’ compensation is through the operation of a power press.  Some employers may be tempted to remove certain safety precautions installed on power presses in the interest of increasing productivity and profit.  A power press is specifically identified as any material-forming machine used to die, press, impact, stamp, punch, or extrude material.  Power presses do not income those machines simply used to cut material.  Under California Labor Code § 4558, if an employer knowingly removes the guard, the employee may be able to recover both in civil court and in through workers’ compensation.  However, if a manufacturer-installed the press, or designed it in such a way as to make it unsafe, the manufacturer may be on the hook for the employee’s injuries instead of the employer.

We have extensive experience helping our clients understand how products liability fits into workers’ compensation.  Call us today to talk about your case and your business.

Completed and Accepted Doctrine

The “Completed and Accepted” Doctrine has a long history in the State of California.  Over fifty years ago in Kolburn v. P.J. Walker Co. (2d Dist. 1940) 38 Cal. App. 545, a California appeals court established this doctrine.  This rule states that where an owner accepts the completed work under a contract, the contractor is not thereafter liable to other people who sustain damages arising from allegedly negligent construction.  The reasoning behind this is that once the contractor has finished the work and the owner of the property or item has accepted the work as complete, the chain of negligence is broken.  From there on out, it is up to the owner to maintain the property or work in good working condition and to prevent third parties from being injured.  Essentially, the owner has “accepted” the work as “complete,” and thereafter the burden shifts to the owner.

An illustration of how this doctrine could apply to a workers’ compensation case is provided from a recent unpublished opinion out of Los Angeles.  In that case, the plaintiff worked for Keogh Electric Corporation (“KEC”) on a project to build a distribution panel on top of a concrete pad for Kramar’s.  The panel and pad were installed in August 2012, and the plaintiff texted his boss at KEC that “Kramar is done.”  Kramar paid KEC for the work, and no other person from KEC was ever seen doing additional work on the project.  The plaintiff then accepted a job from Kramar.  In September 2012, the plaintiff tripped and fell into the panel and was injured.  He then sued KEC for negligence.  The plaintiff’s workers’ compensation insurance carried, Insurance Company of the West, intervened.  KEC argued that the plaintiff could not sue, and cited the Completed and Accepted Doctrine.  The appellate court agreed that the work was completed and accepted, and so the plaintiff’s lawsuit as well as that of the workers’ compensation insurance carrier was dismissed.  What this means is that because the work was completed and accepted, the plaintiff could not sue the original contractor for his injuries.  He was required to go through workers’ compensation against his current employer, if possible.  Moreover, the insurance carrier would not be able to recover its expenses paid out under the workers’ compensation claim against the original contractor.

Workers’ compensation can result in an unusual set of facts leading to an unexpected result in terms of who should be held liable for an employee’s work-related injuries.  If you have questions about workers’ compensation and your company’s liability, contact me today at (714) 252-7078 to talk about your business.

Work-Related Injuries

If your employee has a work-related injury or illness, you may be responsible for paying the workers’ compensation benefits. In order to understand whether your business is liable for an employee’s claim for workers’ compensation, it is vital to have a comprehensive understanding of what is a “work-related injury” within the meaning of California law.

 

A work-related injury could be from two basic categories. First, it could be from a single incident. For example, if your employee is injured in falling off of a roof. Second, it could be from repeated actions performed on the job. A common example of this type of injury would be hearing loss from repeated exposure to loud machinery. Both types of work-related injuries are covered under workers’ compensation laws.

 

It is important to note that a work-related injury does not necessarily have to be an injury that completely originated at the work place. If an employee’s pre-existing injury was “significantly aggravated” by the work environment, this can also fall under workers’ compensation. The definition of “significantly aggravated” is complex, but would include certain incidents (such as death, loss of consciousness, or other medical treatment) or illnesses that would not have happened but for the employee’s exposure to the conditions at work.

 

Injuries can also be work-related even if an employee is travelling at the time. The injury would be considered work-related, even though the employee is not physically at the place of business, if the employee was engaged in activities on behalf of the employer at the time of the injury.

 

However, not all injuries that happen at work are necessarily work-related. If a worker is at the work place as a member of the public and not in his or her working capacity, then any injury sustained would not be a work-related injury. For example, if a grocery store worker is at the store shopping for groceries when he sustains an injury through a slip-and-fall accident, then that is not a work-related injury, even though he works at that store. Another injury that would not be considered work-related would be if an employee is injured through voluntary participation in a wellness program, vaccination program, or blood donation. Intentional self-infliction of harm, injury sustained as a result of self-medication for a non-work-related condition, or injury from personal grooming are also not considered work-related, even if these injuries happen in the work place.

 

Whether an injury is work-related is not always a cut-and-dried answer. If you have questions about whether your employee’s injury is being properly categorized as work-related, contact me at (714) 516-8188 or email [email protected].

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