On Aug. 27, 2020, in Gund v. County of Trinity, the California Supreme Court issued a decision that highlights what injured workers must give up as part of the compensation bargain.
Labor Code §3602 states, "Where the conditions of compensability set forth in Section 3600 concur, the right to recover such compensation is ... the sole and exclusive remedy of the employee or his or her dependents against the employer."
The exclusive remedy rule does more than just establish the jurisdiction of the WCAB. The purpose of the exclusive remedy rule is to protect the employer from unlimited liability for the industrial injuries of its employees –– to protect the employer's side of the compensation bargain.
Under the compensation bargain, the employer assumes liability for industrial 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 but, in exchange, gives up the wider range of damages potentially available in civil court.
FACTS OF THE CASE
On March 13, 2011, the California Highway Patrol (CHP) received a phone call from a female caller who whispered, "Help me." The call was relayed to the Trinity County Sheriff's Department, which was almost 100 miles away from the caller. A deputy sheriff knew that the Gunds lived near the caller. He called Norma Gund and explained to her that the neighbor had called 911. He asked if Mrs. Gund would check on the neighbor, because he was still hours away. The deputy also asked if Mr. Gund was home, and when Mrs. Gund said no, he told Mrs. Gund not to go to the neighbor's home by herself.
When Mrs. Gund asked what was said in the 911 call, the deputy sheriff responded, "Help me." The deputy sheriff did not tell Mrs. Gund that the caller had whispered, that the CHP dispatcher believed she had been trying to call secretly or that the dispatcher's return calls went straight to voicemail. The deputy then mentioned the impending arrival of a major storm, which "must be what this is all about," and stated, "It's probably no big deal."
Believing the emergency to be weather related, the Gunds went to the neighbor's home. Mrs. Gund went in while Mr. Gund stayed in the truck. Mrs. Gund was attacked by a man who had just killed the neighbor and her boyfriend. Mr. Gund heard the commotion, entered the home and saw the man holding down his wife and cutting her throat with a knife. The man then attacked Mr. Gund by tasing him, punching him and cutting his throat. Despite their injuries, both the Gunds were able to escape.
The Gunds later filed a civil action against Trinity County (the County) and the deputy sheriff, alleging that the deputy had sought to secure their assistance by falsely assuring them the neighbor's call was probably weather related and knowingly withholding pertinent facts. The County and deputy sheriff asserted that workers' compensation was the exclusive remedy because they sustained their injuries while engaged in active law enforcement service under LC 3366. The Gunds argued that §3366 did not apply because of the deputy sheriff's alleged misrepresentations, and because they did not understand themselves to be engaged in “active law enforcement service” when they complied with his request.
THE COURT'S DECISION
The California Supreme Court majority upheld the Court of Appeal's decision that workers’ compensation was the Gunds’ exclusive remedy. It explained that under LC 3366, a civilian is entitled to workers' compensation from a public entity if: (1) a peace officer asked for assistance with a task that qualifies as active law enforcement; and (2) the civilian was injured while engaged in that requested service. The majority found that there was no dispute that the Gunds assisted at the request of peace officer –– the only dispute was whether the requested assistance involved "active law enforcement services." The majority concluded that responding to a 911 call for unspecified help was "active law enforcement” for the purposes of §3366.
The majority explained that although “active law enforcement service” does not include every conceivable function a peace officer can perform, it concluded that the phrase includes a peace officer’s duties directly concerned with functions such as enforcing laws, investigating and preventing crime and protecting the public. It stated, "An overly narrow interpretation of active law enforcement service, or one that turns on subjective factors, would leave without recourse many individuals injured while obliging a peace officer’s request for assistance, undermining its civilian-protective purpose."
The majority said, "The workers’ compensation model makes the public agency liable for the costs of the injuries of people assisting police with requested active law enforcement service, whether or not the requesting officer was ultimately at fault." It added, "The simpler, quicker availability of these benefits can incentivize individuals to oblige a peace officer’s request for help, because they will ostensibly be less concerned with the financial consequences of potential injury or death."
The majority concluded that the Gunds were deemed to be employees under LC 3366 because responding to a 911 call of an unknown nature was "active law enforcement” under §3366. It rejected the Gunds argument that whether they engaged in active law enforcement depended in part on what they subjectively believed to be true about the 911 call. It stated, "Determining whether an individual provides active law enforcement service remains an objective inquiry."
It added that the deputy sheriff's omissions or misrepresentations did not change the conclusion. "Even when an employer intentionally conceals and misrepresents hazards in order to induce an individual to accept employment," it explained, "workers’ compensation is the individual’s exclusive remedy." The majority also stated that "allowing allegations of misrepresentation to take claims like this outside the workers’ compensation system would disturb the carefully balanced scheme the Legislature designed." It concluded, "Simply alleging a request for assistance contained a misrepresentation, without more, does not preclude application of section 3366 and the exclusivity provision."
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Groban disagreed that the deputy sheriff asked the Gunds to perform an active law enforcement task. He believed it was objectively reasonable for the Gunds to believe they were asked to render neighborly assistance with a relatively risk-free, weather-related problem. He would hold that the Gunds were not subject to §3366.
ANALYSIS OF THE DECISION
The California Supreme Court no doubt recognized that this was a "tragic case." By limiting the Gunds' recovery to workers' compensation benefits, the majority understood that the Gunds would not receive all of the remedies available to them in a civil tort claim.
Their decision was no doubt made more difficult by the omission and/or misrepresentations of the deputy sheriff. There is no question that the Gunds would not have gone to their neighbor's house unprepared, nor would Mrs. Gund have entered the house alone, if they did not subjectively believe the 911 call was anything more than weather related. Moreover, the Gunds never knew, or even considered, that their civil remedies would be taken away by responding to the 911 call on the deputy's request.
Nevertheless, the majority recognized that their decision would affect not just the Gunds, but other workers as well. They explained, "[W]e cannot fashion a rule that somehow shrinks the scope of workers' compensation for the Gunds ...." Moreover, the majority recognized that workers' compensation benefits were far from meaningless, and that in most cases, such compensation provides a much simpler and quicker path for injured civilians to be compensated.
Employers and insurers often believe that workers' compensation benefits are too easy to obtain. They often feel that the system is too liberal. It's easy to forget that injured workers give up the right to greater recovery in civil courts in exchange for the limited benefits available in the workers' compensation system. It's easy to forget that the exclusive remedy rule becomes a shield when employees file civil claims. The Gund decision is a reminder that in some cases, workers' compensation benefits may not be adequate.
Gund may be obtained from the California courts' website at: https://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/S249792.PDF.