California Supreme Court’s 2014-2015 Term: Cases Involving the Workplace

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In recent years, government laws and regulations regulating the workplace have become more prominent in policy and political discussions. Some state and local governments have increased the minimum wage, an issue that will undoubtedly be part of the 2016 presidential contest. The definition of “employer” is being tested by new types of business enterprises such as Uber. The National Labor Relations Board has become a much more central and controversial regulator of the employment marketplace. Stories are circulating about harsh workplace conditions abroad and within the United States, including at such high-tech fliers as Amazon.

The California Supreme Court dealt with a number of these issues during its 2014-2015 term. We start with a case dealing with the question of whether a franchisor can be held vicariously liable for misconduct by a supervisor employed by a franchisee, a question that requires the court to revisit what it means to be an employer. Next, we review a decision applying the primary assumption of risk doctrine to an employee who works in an inherently dangerous occupation. Our third case involves the application of California “wage orders” in the context of on-call employees. Finally, we have a case involving the definition of causation in the context of a workers’ compensation claim.

The cases present a mixed picture. The first two cases involve the application of time-honored, common law principles. These cases tend to favor the employer’s interests. The second two cases involve the application of statutory and regulatory provisions, and these cases tend to favor the employee’s interests. In all four cases – and this is the real message from this year’s decisions – the court essentially sticks to the existing law, following common law principles when there are no statutes or regulations in derogation, and fully embracing such statutes or regulations when they exist.

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California Bar Journal