I hear employers complain about having to carry workers' comp all the time. Many of them do not understand the protections that workers' compensation coverage can provide, and instead simply view it as a “pain in the ass” mandatory expense that they must endure. They really should educate themselves as to what comp can do to limit their liabilities. Perhaps a recent California Court of Appeals decision will give them reason to believe.
After all, a law enforcement agency there just shoved comp down the throats (or up the arse, depending on your point of view) of two good Samaritans; civilians who did not work for them and who never worked in law enforcement.
WorkCompAcademy.com reported in an article, republished on our site Monday, about a couple who responded to a deputy's request for assistance. He called and asked them to check on their neighbor. He told them that the neighbor had made a call to 911, but indicated it was likely “related to the inclement weather” and was “probably no big deal.” It turned out to be quite the big deal, as the couple stumbled into a double homicide, and were “savagely” attacked by the assailant who had just murdered their neighbor and her boyfriend.
It seems Deppity Dooright left out a few details in his call to the couple. Most notably that “the caller had whispered "help me," that the California Highway Patrol (CHP) dispatcher refrained from calling back when the call was disconnected out of concern the caller was in danger, and that no one answered when the county dispatcher called.”
Pesky little details.
The couple sued the deputy and the county government, but the defendants argued that the couple were “working as law enforcement” and should therefore be limited to only workers' compensation benefits as their exclusive remedy. They filed a motion for summary judgment on those grounds, and the trial court agreed. Somewhat shockingly, to me anyway, is that the California Court of Appeals agreed, and just upheld the trial court's decision.
As WorkCompAcademy.com reported, the decision seems to be based on Section 3366 of California Legislative code. It provides an exception for civilians assisting peace officers in "active law enforcement." They write:
Section 3366 provides that each person "engaged in the performance of active law enforcement service as part of the posse comitatus [power of the county] or power of the county [sic], and each person . . . engaged in assisting any peace officer in active law enforcement service at the request of such peace officer, is deemed to be an employee of the public entity that he or she is serving or assisting in the enforcement of the law, and is entitled to receive compensation from the public entity in accordance with the provisions of this division [workers' compensation]. . . ."
Clearly this code appears to be a well-intentioned effort to provide assistance to citizens who find themselves helping law enforcement in a volunteer capacity and who get injured in the process. This may include people who join a search party, or rush to the aide of an officer in distress. It was intended to protect good Samaritans in the event they got hurt while Samaritanizing – or, well, you know what I mean.
Now, I am no legal eagle. I am not a hoity-toity intellectual. I am just a simply educated boy from the currently burning town of Durango (don't tell Fort Lewis College I said that). My potentially ignorant opinion is that this is a statute that is being horribly misconstrued by the courts.
The court ruled that the couple was “assisting in active law enforcement at the deputy's request,” and therefore workers' compensation could be their only recourse. The law says they are “entitled to receive,” while the courts appear to be reading it as “can only receive.” They are not employees of the county. They didn't formally volunteer for a search party. They didn't wage into a gunfight to assist an officer. They simply answered the phone, and voila, through an ignorance not of their making and an unexpected attack at a murder scene, they are granted all the benefits and perks of workers' compensation coverage.
Of course, they are also granted all the restrictions and employer protections that comp coverage provides as well. There will be no negligence award. No pain and suffering. No loss of consortium. For all I know, if they were retired, there won't be any wage loss associated with their sudden windfall of good fortune. They will, however, get to participate in a state system that has perfected delays in care along with the endless medical review.
Lucky them. I'm sure they're thrilled they answered the phone that day. The lesson here, the next time Deppity Dooright calls and asks you to do his job, is to tell him to go do it himself.
So, employers take note. Workers' comp can indeed protect you. In some cases, in California at least, it may be able to limit your liability towards people who don't even work for you. The California Court of Appeals just proved that. Through the law of unintended consequences, they took a standard intended to aid good Samaritans, and used it to instead beat the living crap out of them.
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Robert Wilson is President & CEO of WorkersCompensation.com, and "From Bob's Cluttered Desk" comes his (often incoherent) thoughts, ramblings, observations and rants - often on workers' comp or employment issues, but occasionally not.
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