In its August 20, 2012 decision in LeFiell Manufacturing Company v. Superior Court, the California Supreme Court held that an injured employee’s spouse is not allowed to pursue a claim for loss of consortium in the employee’s civil lawsuit brought under the “power press” exception to the workers’ compensation exclusive remedy rule.

Generally, workers’ compensation is the exclusive remedy for injuries that occur while an employee is performing services arising from his or her employment. However, there are exceptions to the exclusive remedy rule. California Labor Code section 4558 provides that an employee “or his or dependents in the event of the employee’s death” may file a civil action for damages when the employee’s injuries are caused by the employer’s removal of a safety guard on a power press.  

In this case, an employee filed a civil action against his employer based on section 4558. The employee’s spouse joined in the action, claiming damages for loss of consortium.

The Court of Appeal ruled that the spouse could pursue her claim for loss of consortium damages in her husband’s section 4558 lawsuit. The Court of Appeal recognized that the exclusive remedy rule bars derivative civil actions by the injured employee’s family members. Further, the court recognized that in this case the spouse’s claim was not authorized by the express language of section 4558 since the employee’s injuries did not result in his death. Nevertheless, the court reasoned that the spouse’s claim was viable because, according to section 4558, both the claims of the employee and his spouse fell outside the workers’ compensation system altogether, and thus, the exclusive remedy rule did bar the spouse’s loss of consortium claim.

The Supreme Court disagreed with the Court of Appeal’s conclusion. The Supreme Court held that section 4558’s authorization of a civil action for damages for a power press injury does not suggest that such an injury is entirely outside the workers’ compensation system.

In reversing the Court of Appeal’s ruling, the Supreme Court gave this interpretation to section 4558:

Should the power press injury result in death, the Legislature has expressly provided that the worker’s dependents may pursue the civil cause of action authorized by section 4558 on the worker’s behalf. But where, as here, the worker’s power press injuries do not prove fatal, the Legislature has expressly restricted standing to bring the action at law authorized under subdivision (b) of section 4558 to the injured worker alone. The availability of a civil remedy for the injured worker, to augment his or her workers’ compensation benefits should he or she prevail in court, does not take the case outside the workers’ compensation system. Consequently, derivative claims of dependent family members, such as spouse’s claim for loss of consortium here, remain barred under the workers’ compensation law’s exclusivity rule.” (Emphasis by the Court.)