Exploring the Boundaries of Worker’s Compensation: The Case of Tenant Employees

Certain areas of injury law are governed by their own systems and rules.  Workplace injury suits involve a unique scheme set apart from the typical civil compensation system.  It is important to understand the limits of worker’s compensation, when it applies and when it does not and the injured can and should bring a traditional civil claim.  San Francisco injury lawyer Greg Brod has been following a developing case that, much like the case we recently discussed that tested the boundaries of medical malpractice law, helps clarify the rules for California’s injured.

Overview & Facts in Wright vs. California

In late April, as reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, the Supreme Court of California declined to review a decision issued by the Court of Appeals, allowing the ruling that paved the way for a prison guard’s civil injury suit to stand.  According to the appellate court, a year after beginning work at San Quentin State Prison (“San Quentin”), Monnie Wright voluntarily moved into a State-owned rental unit owned within the prison’s gated grounds.  He was not required to move and he paid market rent.  The lease did require Wright to obtain rental insurance.

Per the appellate court, Wright took a “lengthy walk from his home to his actual place of work” (equivalent to several city blocks).  On December 14, 2010, Wright fell on a staircase just outside his unit when a concrete step allegedly collapsed.  He received workers’ compensation and elected early disability retirement.

Wright also filed a civil premises liability claim against the state.  The State suggested the injuries arose out of Wright’s employment and thus the claim was barred and Wright was limited to worker’s compensation remedy.  The State filed for Summary Judgment and the trial court granted the motion.  According to the trial court, the “coming and going” rule which typically holds the trip to and from work is not covered by worker’s compensation did not apply because Wright was on his employer’s premises at the time of injury.  The court suggested employment begins upon entry to the employer’s premises, even for resident employees.  Wright filed for a new trial and, after that was denied, he appealed.

Appellate Ruling: Distinguishing Tenant Employees and Focusing on Facts

gavel2The appellate court reversed, holding it was error to bar the tort claim simply because Wright was on his employer’s premises when he fell, especially given that he lived there.  According to the decision (which the Supreme Court allowed to stand), the worker’s compensation bar against tort claims applies where the injury arose out of and happened in the course of employment.  Typically, injuries sustained during the commute to and from work are not covered by worker’s compensation (“the coming and going rule”).

Despite sounding simple, this rule can be difficult to apply so the courts eventually developed a premises line rule which holds employment commences when the employee arrives on the employer’s premises.  However, the appellate court criticized the lower court’s failure to consider that Wright lived on premises.  Reviewing cases involving resident employees, the court finds that worker’s compensation usually applies and bars tort suits where an employee is required to live on-site (the “bunkhouse rule”).  In contrast, the court notes Wright was not required to live on site, paid market rent, and was neither on-call nor did he perform work at his residence.

As added support for its ruling, the appellate court pointed to the requirement that Wright obtain rental insurance.  If the State was responsible for all injuries Wright suffered on its premises even injuries in or near his rental unit, in other words if worker’s compensation covered him at all times, this insurance would unnecessary.

Tenant Employees and the Limits of Worker’s Compensation

Ultimately, the court found the facts warranted closer attention, creating a “triable issue of material fact whether Wright was acting in the course of his employment at the time he was injured.”  While it passed the ultimate decision on to the trial court (as procedural rules require), the appeals court suggests that where an employee voluntarily chooses to live on-site and is injured in the residential area a civil claim outside worker’s compensation may be appropriate.  Per the court, tenant employees are different from non-residential employees “and that they have not entered the course of employment simply by virtue of living on their employers’ premises.”  Tenant employee’s injuries must be closely examined and the court must apply basic worker’s compensation principles and decide if the injuries arose out of the employment relationship.

Worker’s compensation provides greater certainty that an employee will be compensated for on-the-job injuries.  In exchange, employees give up the right to file a civil suit for covered injuries.  Worker’s compensation is an important protection, but it has its limits and it often does not provide the extent of coverage that might be available in civil court.  Attorney Brod understands the contours of the worker’s compensation system.  If your employer is arguing your claim is limited to worker’s compensation and you disagree, call our injury law offices in San Francisco, Santa Rosa, or Oakland.

See Related Blog Posts:

Beyond Workers’ Comp: A Look at Third Party Claims Inspired by Scary Moments for Two Sets of California Window Washers

Court Rules on Claims of “Ordinary Negligence” in a Medical Setting

(Image by Brian Turner)

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