Employee who contracted typhus seeks workers’ compensation from City of Los Angeles

Worker alleges failure to remedy dangerous condition on public property adjacent to workplace

Employee who contracted typhus seeks workers’ compensation from City of Los Angeles

Recovery under the Workers’ Compensation Act of California is the exclusive remedy against an employer for an employee’s injury or death only if the case meets certain conditions for compensation, the California Court of Appeal stressed in a recent case.

The case of Greenwood v. City of Los Angeles arose from a plaintiff’s complaint. She became a deputy city attorney in 1996 and worked in an office in a building in the City Hall East area of Los Angeles.

Starting in September 2018, there was a typhus epidemic in downtown Los Angeles, with an area close to City Hall East being designated as the “typhus zone,” the plaintiff said. In that area, there was an accumulation of trash and other items that caused and contributed to the outbreak, the plaintiff added.

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In November 2018, the plaintiff contracted typhus. She claimed that she might have been exposed to typhus in a parking area or mall close to City Hall East. She experienced symptoms such as a stiff neck, high fever, severe headache, and dizziness, for which she took multiple medications. She kept suffering from dizziness, vertigo, and disequilibrium for several months afterward.

In December 2018, the plaintiff allegedly learned that the city had no plans to fumigate the City Hall East building or to take other actions to deal with the typhus outbreak. She filed a complaint with the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA), which was investigating her case.

The plaintiff, alleging that the City of Los Angeles was her employer, asked it for workers’ compensation benefits. The city denied her claim. It said that there was no evidence supporting that her injuries had industrial causes.

The plaintiff filed a lawsuit based on premises liability. She alleged that the city was responsible for her contracting typhus. In response, the city argued that Workers’ Compensation Act exclusivity barred her lawsuit. The trial court agreed with the city.

The plaintiff filed an amended complaint. She claimed that the city knew about a dangerous condition on public property adjacent to her workplace for a few months but failed to take measures to protect against this danger. This failure caused her to contract typhus, a serious disease with potentially deadly consequences, she said.

The trial court ruled in the city’s favor. It found the city immune from liability under section 855.4 of California’s Government Code. The plaintiff appealed.

City immune from liability

The California Court of Appeal for the Second District affirmed the trial court’s decision siding with the city.

Under the Tort Claims Act, public entities were generally immune from noncontractual liability, while public employees were generally liable for their torts. Section 855.4 of the Government Code provided an exception.

Under section 855.4, neither the public entity nor the public employee would be liable for an injury resulting from the decision to perform or not to perform an act to promote community public health by preventing disease or by controlling the communication of disease if an exercise of the public entity’s or the public employee’s discretion resulted in the decision, regardless of whether the discretion was abused.

The city was immune from liability since this case fell under the situation in section 855.4, the appellate court determined. Given this determination, the appellate court did not address the parties’ arguments about other possible grounds for immunity or about exclusivity under the Workers’ Compensation Act.

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