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When Is an Employer Responsible for a Work Injury Because of “Serious and Willful Misconduct”?

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The California workers’ compensation system is a form of insurance that provides financial support for employees who are injured on the job. Workers’ compensation insurance is intended to prevent workers from needing to sue their employers for damages when they’re hurt on the job. In fact, most California workers do not have the legal right to money damages from their employer after they’re hurt at work. The payment of benefits through the workers’ compensation system is the exclusive remedy that employees have when they need financial support after a workplace injury. In rare cases, however, employees are entitled to additional damages payable directly by their employer, not just their workers’ compensation insurer.

Read on to learn more about when California employers may be liable for damages beyond workers’ compensation benefits after a worker is hurt on the job, and contact a knowledgeable Riverside workplace injury lawyer with any additional questions you may have.

When can employees collect additional compensation directly from their employer?

California’s Labor Code provides that, if an employer is found to have caused an employee’s injury through “serious and willful misconduct,” that employee is entitled to receive an amount equal to half of the total award of benefits the employee received through the workers’ compensation system. For example, if you received a total workers’ compensation award of $30,000, and you were able to show that your employer committed serious and willful misconduct that caused your injuries, you would be entitled to an additional $15,000 from that employer.

California Labor Code § 4553, the law affording employees the right to seek these damages when injured as the result of serious and willful misconduct, sets this amount. In other words, if you and your attorney can prove serious and willful misconduct, the court will be required to award you an amount from your employer that’s equal to half of everything you’ve received through workers’ compensation. Courts do not have the authority to reduce the amount that an employer will owe, once the standard for culpability has been met.

What constitutes “serious and willful misconduct”?

In order to qualify for these additional benefits, the injured employee is required to present evidence proving that their employer committed serious and willful misconduct in the lead-up to the worker’s injury. Employees cannot simply show that an employer was careless or negligent when creating a dangerous condition that resulted in the worker getting hurt. One leading case that discusses the “serious and willful misconduct” standard, titled Mercer-Fraser Co. v. Industrial Accident Commission, explained that the employee needs to be able to show that the employer committed an act either “with the knowledge that it is likely to result in serious injury, or with a wanton and reckless disregard of its possible consequences.” In other words, employers have to know what bad consequence would result and make a conscious failure to act to avoid the injury in order to be responsible under this standard.

What are some examples of “serious and willful misconduct”?

Courts are somewhat reluctant to find “serious and willful misconduct,” but they will when workplace conditions are sufficiently dangerous. For example, if a supervisor intentionally attacks an employee and causes that worker serious injury, courts would be likely to find serious and willful misconduct. Another example might be the provision of equipment that the employer knows to be unsafe. If the employer is aware that a given tool or piece of safety equipment is broken or regularly malfunctions, and the failure of that equipment to function properly could result in serious injury to the worker, then the worker might be entitled to additional benefits under this standard should this action result in injury.

While accidental violations of workplace safety orders might not result in liability under the “serious and willful misconduct” standard, if an employer knows about and deliberately ignores or violates a workplace safety order, and violation of that safety order could result in serious injury or death to workers, then an employee who can prove these circumstances could be entitled to additional compensation from that employer. The assistance of a seasoned California workers’ compensation attorney will be critical in proving entitlement to “serious and willful misconduct” damages.

If you or someone you love has been seriously hurt on the job in California, get help seeking the workers’ compensation benefits you’re owed by contacting the Riverside offices of Ochoa & Calderon for a consultation on your case.

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