The exclusive remedy rule provides a defense to suits by employees (or their dependents) arising out of personal injuries. California Labor Code 3602(a); Williams v. Schwartz (1976) 61 CA3d 628.
The rule also immunizes an employer from liability for the payment of damages for a spouse’s loss of consortium and other emotional distress where the employee would be barred by the exclusive remedy rule from recovering personal injury damages. Cole v. Fair Oaks Fire Protection Dist. (1987) 43 C3d 148.
Similarly, an employee, his dependents or spouse are generally barred from naming the employee’s employer as a defendant in a civil action instituted against a third-party (like this case).
In fact, a claim involving an employer’s fault in cases such as this can only be made as an affirmative defense by a third party. Gilford v. State Compensation Ins. Fund (1974) 41 CA3d 828.
Pursuant to Proposition 51 (in the context of a workers’ compensation cases), the employer’s percentage of fault for the injury or death of its employee will reduce the extent of a third-party’s non-economic damages, but will not reduce the recoverable economic damages. However, the injured employee’s percentage of fault will reduce both the recoverable economic damages and non-economic damages. Specifically, Proposition 51 requires that the trier of fact render (i) a joint and several judgment for economic damages, following a reduction by the fault percentage assigned to the injured employee and (ii) a separate judgment against each defendant for the percentage of non-economic damages attributable to that defendant. Pursuant to California Civil Code Section 1431.2, “economic damages” refers to objectively verifiable monetary losses, whereas “non-economic damages” refers to subjective non-monetary losses (e.g. pain, suffering, inconvenience, mental suffering, emotional distress, loss of society and companionship, loss of consortium, injury to reputation and humiliation.
Historically California Labor Code Section 6304.5 barred a party from proffering evidence of a violation of the California Occupational Safety and Health Act in order to establish that another party acted negligently in a civil lawsuit. However, following the relatively recent amendment to Section 6304.5 and the California Supreme Court’s holding in Elsner v. Uveges (2004) 34 Cal. 4th 915, the decisional and statutory authority controverted the earlier broad prohibition on the use of Cal-OSHA violations. Specifically, the California Supreme Court determined that Cal-OSHA could be used by a party to establish the standard of care in a negligence case, such that a plaintiff may establish negligence per se when another party violated the regulatory scheme in certain instances, subject to some exceptions. The legal significance of the admissibility of Cal-OSHA violations in the context of a personal injury case is that it raises a presumption that the party who violated the regulations was in fact negligent when the party’s violation resulted in a personal injury.