In California, employers are legally required to provide workers’ compensation insurance for their employees. In most cases, a workers’ compensation claim is an injured employee’s sole legal claim against the company. However, there are some limited exceptions to the rule.

Under California Labor Code section 4553, an employee or surviving dependent can seek additional compensation from an employer if the injury or death was caused by “serious and willful misconduct” of the employer. An employer found liable for serious and willful misconduct would face a penalty in the amount of one-half of the compensation otherwise recoverable in the workers’ compensation claim. This penalty is, by law, not insurable under any workers’ compensation policy.

This raises an important question: What constitutes serious and willful misconduct in California? Here, our Fresno workers’ compensation defense lawyers highlight three examples of serious and willful misconduct.  

Three Examples of Serious and Willful Misconduct Under Labor Code section 4553

  1. An Employer Causes an Intentional Injury to an Employee

While not common, an employer could be held liable for a serious and willful if they cause intentional harm to an employee. As an example, if a small business owner in California physically assaulted an employee in the workplace, their company could face a serious and willful misconduct workers’ compensation claim. Of course, in that scenario, there could be other legal ramifications as well.

2. Violation of a Workplace Safety Order

If an employer violates a specific workplace safety order, that could rise to the level of serious and willful misconduct under California law. To bring a successful serious and willful misconduct claim on these grounds, an employee or surviving dependent would be required to prove a violation of a safety order, that the violation was the cause of the injury or death, and that the employer had knowledge of the safety order or the conditions making the safety order applicable, with the probability that any violation would result in serious injury if no corrective action were taken. Such a claim may be defended by undermining any of these elements.

3. Extreme Disregard for Employee Safety—Probable Result of Serious Injury

Finally, an employer could also be held liable for serious and willful misconduct damages if they demonstrate extreme disregard for the health and well-being of an employee to the point that it is likely to result in a serious injury. Once again, an employer is only liable if they were aware of the dangerous conditions.

Serious and Willful Misconduct is More than Negligence

California courts are clear: Serious and willful misconduct is distinct from mere negligence. To be held liable for serious and willful misconduct damages—a penalty that is 50% the total value of the injured worker’s claim—an employer must have engaged in misconduct beyond mere negligence. An employer may be negligent without committing serious and willful misconduct. These claims can be defended on a number of different grounds, including by demonstrating lack of knowledge of the alleged safety hazard.

Get Help From a Workers’ Compensation Defense Attorney in California

At Yrulegui & Roberts, our California workers’ compensation defense lawyers are effective, diligent advocates for our clients. We have extensive experience handling serious and willful misconduct claims. Contact us now to schedule a fully confidential review of your case. With office locations in Fresno, Bakersfield, and Sacramento, our workers’ compensation defense attorneys serve communities throughout the entire region, including in Stockton, Redding, San Jose, and Santa Barbara.