You may have heard that a workers’ compensation claim is the exclusive remedy that injured employees have against their employer in California. While that is mostly true, there is a narrow, but important exception: A serious and willful misconduct claim.

In a serious and willful misconduct claim,an employer may face additional legal liability after a workplace accident. Here, our workers’ compensation defense lawyers highlight the most important things that employers should know about serious and willful misconduct claims in California.

California Law: Serious and Willful Misconduct Claims

Under California Labor Code § 4553, an employer found to be responsible for a worker’s injury/illness through serious and willful misconduct will be ordered to pay an amount equal to half of the total benefits awarded to the employee. For example, if an employee was awarded $50,000.00 in total workers’ compensation benefits, an employer could be held liable for another $25,000.00 through a serious and willful misconduct claim.

To be clear, the calculation includes all benefits paid through a valid workers’ compensation claim—from medical costs to temporary or permanent disability benefits. As these are statutory damages, California judges do not have discretion to alter awards. A serious and willful misconduct claim is either equal to half the total damages or there is no employer liability at all.  Further, as it is a statutory penalty, it is not an uninsurable loss as a matter of California public policy. 

Serious and Willful Misconduct: Defined

California courts are clear that Labor Code section 4533 is far narrower than a simple ‘negligence’ standard. As explained by the California Supreme Court in the case of Mercer-Fraser Co. v. Industrial Acc. Com., serious and willful misconduct is “something much more than negligence.” It requires intentional knowledge of wrongdoing by the company/organization or extreme disregard for employee safety.

An Employee has the Burden of Proof Under Labor Code Section 4553

In defending a serious and willful misconduct claim it is important for employers to understand that Labor Code section 4553 puts the burden of proof on the employee. An employee seeking to hold an employer legally liable for a workplace accident because of serious and willful misconduct must establish the employer’s intentional or extraordinarily harmful actions or inactions.

As described by the California Supreme Court in a recent case, an employer is guilty of an act of serious and willful misconduct if it recognizes severe employee harm as a likely result from acts or omissions, but nonetheless still refuses to take safety precautions. Employers facing a serious and willful misconduct claim should begin building an immediate defense. While the burden of proof is on the plaintiff, it is still important to be proactive. Serious and willful misconduct liability can be substantial.

Call Our Fresno Workers’ Compensation Defense Lawyers for Immediate Assistance

At Yrulegui & Roberts, our California workers’ compensation defense attorneys have the skills and experience to handle serious and willful misconduct claims. If you have questions about Labor Code section 4453, we are here to help. To set up a confidential consultation, please call us at 559-222-0660 or contact us directly through our website. From our offices in Fresno, Sacramento, and Bakersfield, we serve clients all over the Central Valley of California.