Torres v. Parkhouse Tire Service, Inc.

Decision Date30 August 2001
Docket NumberNo. S084105.,S084105.
Citation26 Cal.4th 995,30 P.3d 57,111 Cal.Rptr.2d 564
CourtCalifornia Supreme Court
PartiesManuel TORRES et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants, v. PARKHOUSE TIRE SERVICE, INC., et al., Defendants and Respondents.

Moreno & Associates, Andres Moreno and William Baker, Chula Vista, for Plaintiffs and Appellants.

Law Offices of Martina A. Silas and Martina A. Silas, Encino, for Worksafe! and Communities for a Better Environment as Amici Curiae on behalf of Plaintiffs and Appellants.

Post, Kirby, Noonan & Sweat and David B. Oberholtzer, San Diego, for Defendant and Respondent Roy G. Naas.

Wolfe, Axtmann, David G. Axtmann; Booth, Mitchell & Strange and Richard F. Wolfe, San Diego, for Defendant and Respondent Parkhouse Tire Service, Inc.

Latham & Watkins, Joel E. Krischer and Kathryn M. Davis, Los Angeles, for Employers Group as Amicus Curiae on behalf of Defendants and Respondents.

CHIN, J.

Under an exception to the exclusivity of workers' compensation remedies, an injured employee may bring a civil action against another employee "[w]hen the injury or death is proximately caused by the willful and unprovoked physical act of aggression of the other employee." (Lab. Code,1 § 3601, subd. (a)(1).) The question we address is whether, as a general rule, a trial court properly may instruct the jury that the injured employee must prove that the other employee had an intent to injure in order to satisfy section 3601, subdivision (a)(1)? We conclude the answer is yes.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

The facts are taken largely from the Court of Appeal opinion.

Manuel Torres worked for Parkhouse Tire Service, Inc. (Parkhouse), repairing and installing tires. Roy G. Naas, a sales representative for Parkhouse, approached Torres from behind while he was on his knees working on a tire. Naas grabbed Torres's back support belt, lifted him off the ground several times, and finally dropped him on his knees.2 Suffering a back injury, Torres did not return to work for Parkhouse. Torres claimed the incident was malicious, while Naas countered it was innocent horseplay.

Torres and his wife (plaintiffs) sued Parkhouse and Naas seeking damages for personal injury and loss of consortium. The complaint alleged that Naas committed a "willful and unprovoked physical act of aggression" against Torres so as to render Naas subject to civil suit under section 3601, subdivision (a)(1). The complaint also alleged that employer Parkhouse condoned and ratified Naas's tortious actions, making it also subject to suit.3 The trial court instructed the jury that in order to impose liability, the jury must find that (1) Torres's "injury was caused by a willful and unprovoked physical act of aggression on the part of [Naas]," and (2) Naas "committed the act with the intent to cause injury." The jury returned a special verdict finding that Naas did not "commit a willful and unprovoked act of physical aggression against plaintiff Manuel Torres with the intent to cause injury."

Plaintiffs appealed. Reversing the trial court's judgment, the Court of Appeal majority held that plaintiffs were not required to prove Naas's specific intent to injure in order to recover damages under section 3601, subdivision (a)(1). The majority found that this statutory exception to workers' compensation exclusivity "does not state that the injury must be `intentionally' or `willfully' caused by the physical act of aggression." The majority expressly disagreed with Soares v. City of Oakland (1992) 9 Cal.App.4th 1822, 1826-1829, 12 Cal.Rptr.2d 405 (Soares,) which held to the contrary. The dissenting justice (Kremer, P.J.), however, concluded that an intent to injure requirement comported with this court's decision in Mathews v. Workmen's Comp. Appeals Bd. (1972) 6 Cal.3d 719, 100 Cal.Rptr. 301, 493 P.2d 1165 (Mathews).

We granted review. Several days before the scheduled oral argument, Naas's counsel informed the court that the parties had reached a settlement. However, no party requested dismissal of the appeal. Although the settlement may have rendered this case technically moot, "we instead follow the well-established line of judicial authority recognizing an exception to the mootness doctrine, and permitting the court to decline to dismiss a case rendered moot by stipulation of the parties where the appeal raises issues of continuing public importance." (Lundquist v. Reusser (1994) 7 Cal.4th 1193, 1202, fn. 8, 31 Cal.Rptr.2d 776, 875 P.2d 1279.)

Discussion
A. Exclusivity rule

As a general rule, an employee who sustains an industrial injury "arising out of and in the course of the employment" is limited to recovery under the workers' compensation system. (§ 3600, subd. (a); Fermino v. Fedco, Inc. (1994) 7 Cal.4th 701, 708, 30 Cal.Rptr.2d 18, 872 P.2d 559 (Fermino).) We have observed that this rule of exclusivity is based on the "`presumed "compensation bargain," pursuant to which the employer assumes Kability for industrial personal injury or death without regard to fault in exchange for limitations on the amount of that liability. The employee is afforded relatively swift and certain payment of benefits to cure or relieve the effects of industrial injury without having to prove fault but, in exchange, gives up the wider range of damages potentially available in tort.'" (Fermino, supra, 7 Cal.4th at p. 708, 30 Cal.Rptr.2d 18, 872 P.2d 559, quoting Shoemaker v. Myers (1990) 52 Cal.3d 1, 16, 276 Cal.Rptr. 303, 801 P.2d 1054.)

To prevent employees from circumventing the exclusivity rule by bringing lawsuits for work-related injuries against coemployees, who in turn would seek indemnity from their employers, the Legislature in 1959 provided immunity to coemployees. (§ 3601, subd. (a), as amended by Stats.1959, ch. 1189, § 1, p. 3275 [amending § 3601 to substantially its current version].) In other words, the purpose of the exclusivity rule would be defeated if employees could bring actions against fellow employees acting in the scope of employment such that the fellow employees' negligence could be imputed to their employers. (Saala v. McFarland (1965) 63 Cal.2d 124, 130, 45 Cal.Rptr. 144, 403 P.2d 400.) Therefore, workers' compensation was also made the exclusive remedy against fellow employees acting within the scope of employment. (Ibid.) The words "`"acting within the scope of his [or her] employment"'" should be interpreted in light of the purpose of section 3601, so as not to extend immunity beyond respondeat superior situations. (63 Cal.2d at p. 130,45 Cal.Rptr. 144,403 P.2d 400; Hendy v. Losse (1991) 54 Cal.3d 723, 734, 1 Cal. Rptr.2d 543, 819 P.2d 1.) For conduct committed within the scope of employment, employees, like their employers, should not be held subject to suit. (Ibid.; see also 6 Larson, Workers' Compensation Law (2001) § 111.03[2], p. 111-11 [because employees give up the right to sue for industrial injuries as part of the compensation bargain, employees should also be entitled to freedom from suit for industrial accidents in which employees are at fault].)

There are, however, statutory exceptions to coemployee immunity. As relevant here, a civil suit is permissible when an employee proximately causes another employee's injury or death by a "willful and unprovoked physical act of aggression" (§ 3601, subd. (a)(1)) or by intoxication. (§ 3601, subd. (a)(2).)4 If an employee brings a lawsuit against a coemployee based on either of these exceptions, the employer is not "held liable, directly or indirectly, for damages awarded against, or for a liability incurred by the other employee . . . ." (§ 3601, subd. (b).) This provision is consistent with the view that a coemployee is immune from suit to the extent necessary to prevent an end-run against the employer under the exclusivity rule. (Saala v. McFarland, supra, 63 Cal.2d at p. 130, 45 Cal.Rptr. 144, 403 P.2d 400.) "It is self-evident that Labor Code section 3601 did not establish or create a new right or cause of action in the employee but severely limited a preexisting right to freely sue a fellow employee for damages." (Miner v. Superior Court (1973) 30 Cal.App.3d 597, 600, 106 Cal.Rptr. 416.)

With this background in mind, we address whether the trial court properly instructed the jury that plaintiffs were required to prove that Naas acted with the intent to cause injury in order to establish that Naas had committed a "willful and unprovoked physical act of aggression" against Torres under section 3601, subdivision (a)(1).

B. Section 3601, subdivision (a)(1)

In interpreting a statute where the language is clear, courts must follow its plain meaning. (Droeger v. Friedman, Sloan & Ross (1991) 54 Cal.3d 26, 38, 283 Cal.Rptr. 584, 812 P.2d 931.) However, if the statutory language permits more than one reasonable interpretation, courts may consider various extrinsic aids, including the purpose of the statute, the evils to be remedied, the legislative history, public policy, and the statutory scheme encompassing the statute. (Wilcox v. Birtwhistle (1999) 21 Cal.4th 973, 977, 90 Cal. Rptr.2d 260, 987 P.2d 727.) In the end, we "`must select the construction that comports most closely with the apparent intent of the Legislature, with a view to promoting rather than defeating the general purpose of the statute, and avoid an interpretation that would lead to absurd consequences.' [Citation.]" (Id. at pp. 977-978, 90 Cal.Rptr.2d 260, 987 P.2d 727.)

Like the Court of Appeal, plaintiffs assert that the exception's language is plain and expressly does not include an intent to injure element. (See § 3601, subd. (a)(1).) Thus, they assert that a court may only instruct a jury on the words of the statute without defining its terms, and without recognizing an intent to injure requirement.

We disagree that the meaning of section 3601, subdivision (a)(1)'s statutory language is clear on its face. The Labor Code does not specifically define the phrase "willful and unprovoked physical act...

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