Exclusive Remedy Applies to Emotional Distress Claim
 Sept. 24, 2008

California’s workers’ compensation system grew out of a need in the early 1900s to ensure workers injured on the job would  receive compensation benefits in a timely fashion without having to sue their employer. Just as the work place has evolved since then, so have the nature of work related disabilities. California isstill has a "no fault" system with workers’ compensation as the exclusive remedy for industrially injured workers who bring an action against their employer.

Recently California Supreme Court ruled that the workers' compensation system is the sole remedy for emotional distress allegedly caused by an employer's conduct.
The state's high court applied the exclusive remedy rule to one of four causes of action listed in Miklosy v. Regents of U.C., No. S139133, 7/31/08. In this the case, two plaintiffs had alleged intentional infliction of emotional distress (among other causes of action) against the Regents of the University of California.
The high court concluded:
"Plaintiffs allege defendants engaged in 'outrageous conduct' that was intended to, and did, cause plaintiffs 'severe emotional distress,' giving rise to common law causes of action for intentional infliction of emotional distress. The alleged wrongful conduct, however, occurred at the worksite, in the normal course of the employer-employee relationship, and therefore workers' compensation is plaintiffs' exclusive remedy for any injury that may have resulted."
The action comes from two University of California Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory computer scientists, Leo Miklosy and Luciana Messina. Both were working on a project to determine the safety of the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile. They reported safety problems with the project, and Miklosy was terminated. Messina resigned after learning that the laboratory intended to fire her as well.  
Both filed complaints under the Whistleblower Act, and pursuant with the law, the laboratory appointed an officer to investigate the matter. The officer had   "determined instead that the laboratory had fired Miklosy for unsatisfactory work performance and that the laboratory had never intended to fire Messina and actually had tried to convince her to stay."
Messina and Luciana did not appeal the officer's decision, but did file a damages action in superior court against the university and three supervisors. The causes of action were:

  • Unlawful retaliation in violation of the Whistleblower Act (both plaintiffs).
  • Wrongful termination in violation of public policy (Miklosy).
  • Wrongful constructive termination in violation of public policy (Messina).
  • Intentional infliction of emotional distress (both plaintiffs)."

    The trial court sustained the defendants' demurrer with leave to amend, and the
    plaintiffs amended the complaint. Once again, the defense filed a demurrer without leave to amend, which the trial court sustained before dismissing the scientists' action.
    The appellate court affirmed, concluding that the university had resolved the complaints in a timely manner and that the scientists' claims were statutorily barred. Upon appeal, the California Supreme Court affirmed the decision.

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