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Exclusive Remedy Rule and Claims Against Co-Workers

Under Labor Code § 3602, workers' compensation benefits are "the sole and exclusive remedy of the employee or his or her dependents against the employer" for work-related injuries. The purpose of the exclusive remedy rule is to protect the employer's side of the compensation bargain. Under that bargain, the employer assumes liability for industrial personal injury or death without regard to fault in exchange for limitations on the amount of that liability. The employee is given relatively swift and certain payment of benefits to cure or relieve the effects of industrial injury without having to prove fault. In exchange, he or she gives up the wider range of damages potentially available in tort.

Like employers, co-workers also are protected from civil liability for injuries they cause to other workers incurred in the course of employment. LC 3601 states that workers' compensation is "the exclusive remedy for injury or death of an employee against any other employee of the employer acting within the scope of his or her employment," subject to two exceptions: (1) when the injury or death is proximately caused by the willful and unprovoked physical act of aggression of the other employee; and (2) when the injury or death is proximately caused by the intoxication of the other employee.

The California Supreme Court has explained that LC 3601 provides immunity to co-workers, "[t]o prevent employees from circumventing the exclusivity rule by bringing lawsuits for work-related injuries against coemployees, who in turn would seek indemnity from their employers ..." (Torres v. Parkhouse Tire Service, Inc. (2001) 26 Cal.4th 995, 1002.) It added, "In other words, the purpose of the exclusivity rule would be defeated if employees could bring actions against fellow employees acting in the scope of employment such that the fellow employees' negligence could be imputed to their employers."

Recently, in Vann v. City and County of San Francisco (2023) 97 Cal. App. 5th 1013, the 1st District Court of Appeal adopted a broad interpretation of the people who constitute co-workers entitled to protection under LC 3601.

In Vann, the injured worker was a firefighter for the San Francisco Fire Department (SFFD). He was responding to an emergency when a bus driver with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) drove over the fire hose. The hose broke free and hit the firefighter's legs, sweeping him off his feet and slamming him backward onto the ground. He incurred catastrophic injuries, including a traumatic brain injury. The SFFD paid workers' compensation benefits for the injury, but the firefighter also filed a civil complaint alleging causes of action for negligence against the bus driver and the City and County of San Francisco (City).

The Court of Appeal held that workers' compensation exclusivity under LC 3601 and LC 3602 barred the firefighter's claims. It first noted that he agreed that the SFFD was a part of the City's executive branch, thus conceding that the SFFD was not a legal entity separate from the City. It found, based on its review of the City Charter, municipal codes and other legislative materials, that the SFMTA did not have a legal existence separate and apart from the City.

Because the SFFD and the SFMTA were parts of the same entity — the City — the court concluded that the City effectively employed both the firefighter and the bus driver. So the court held that workers' compensation provided the exclusive remedy for the firefighter's claims against the City as his employer per LC 3602 and against the bus driver as his co-employee per LC 3601. In reaching its decision, the court relied in part on LC 3202, which requires the Workers' Compensation Act to be liberally construed in favor of awarding workers' compensation benefits.

In Vann, the Court of Appeal adopted a broad interpretation of what constitutes a co-worker under LC 3601 and an employer under LC 3602, who are entitled to protection under the exclusive remedy rule. Employees do not have to share supervisors or work locations, or even work in similar fields, to be considered co-workers for the purposes of LC 3601. If they work for the same legal entity, the exclusive remedy rule will protect the co-worker and legal entity from civil liability. In this case, the Court of Appeal determined that different government departments should not be divided into different entities for purposes of the workers' compensation law. It's not clear if or how the case would apply to private employers.

The firefighter in Vann was not without recovery — he was still entitled to workers' compensation benefits for his injuries. He was precluded only from obtaining the wider range of damages potentially available in civil court. So, the exclusive remedy rule and the principle of liberal construction under LC 3202 are frequently used to shield employers when employees file civil claims.

Sullivan on Comp Free Trial

For further discussion regarding the protection available to co-workers under LC 3601, see Sullivan on Comp Section 2.29 — Civil Remedy Against Co-Employee.