Can You Sue Your Employer in California Over Unsafe Working Conditions?

You might be able to collect extra workers’ comp benefits in California if your injury resulted from your employer’s serious and willful misconduct.

By , Attorney · University of San Francisco School of Law
Updated by E.A. Gjelten, Legal Editor

If you suffered a workplace injury or illness caused by unsafe working conditions, you will likely be entitled to compensation.

If you haven't suffered an injury but you feel your workplace is unsafe, you should first alert your employer to the hazard. If your employer fails to fix the unsafe condition, you can file a complaint on the Cal/OSHA website, or alert the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Compensation for Workplace Injuries in California

When employees are injured at the workplace, the general rule in California is that they can only get compensation for their injuries through workers' comp; they can't sue their employers in court.

In some states, there is a limited exception when an employer intentionally hurt an employee. California doesn't have an "intentional act" exception that would allow you to sue your employer in civil court.

However, it does have a provision that could allow you to collect a penalty if you can prove that were injured because of your employer's "serious and willful misconduct." If you're successful, you will receive a 50% increase in your workers' comp benefits.

Proving a Serious and Willful Misconduct Claim in California

It's not easy to prove a serious and willful misconduct claim. You must show that your employer's actions or failure to act were:

  • intentionally harmful
  • done with the knowledge that serious injury would probably result, or
  • done with reckless, absolute disregard of the likely negative consequences.

Actions that are merely careless, thoughtless, or even irresponsible are not enough to be considered serious and willful misconduct.

A clear violation of health and safety codes, such as those set by Cal/OSHA, might qualify as serious and willful misconduct. Intentionally removing safety equipment and instructing employees to continue working could also qualify.

Refusing to Work in Unsafe Conditions in California

Employees in California can refuse to work in circumstances that they reasonably believe could cause death or serious injury.

Under California law, a few conditions must be met before you can lawfully refuse to work:

  • You have alerted your employer to the unsafe condition, but your employer refuses to fix it.
  • You don't have enough time to report the unsafe condition to the authorities.
  • No reasonable alternatives exist to perform the work without safety risks.

That means if you reasonably believe that performing the work will place their life or health in imminent danger, and the employer refuses to fix the safety concern, you have a legal right to refuse to do the work. And your employer is legally prohibited from retaliating against you for refusing to work in unsafe conditions.

When to Contact a Workers' Comp Attorney

Because claims for serious and willful misconduct are very difficult to win and follow a different set of rules than typical workers' comp claims, you should consult with a lawyer as soon as possible. An experienced workers' comp attorney can assess your case, identify any safety violations, and advise you on the likelihood of winning your claim.

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