February 28, 2011

Ballester v. Ecolab: plaintiff cannot use punitive damages claim to circumvent workers' comp exclusivity

The plaintiff in this case brought a claim against his employer for intentional infliction of emotional distress, arguing his supervisor "fraudulently" criticized his job performance.  Unfortunately for him, it is well established in California that the Workers' Compensation Act provides the exclusively remedy for infliction of emotional distress resulting from alleged personnel actions.  To avoid that rule, the plaintiff included in his complaint a cause of action for punitive damages, and argued that the punitive damages claim took the case outside the realm of workers' compensation exclusivity.  The trial court disagreed, sustained the employer's demurrer to the complaint, and entered judgment for the defense.

The California Court of Appeal (First Appellate District, Division Three) affirmed in this unpublished opinion, citing the well-established rule that “[t]here is no cause of action for punitive damages. . . . ‘Punitive damages are merely incident to a cause of action, and can never constitute the basis thereof.’”  Accordingly, because the plaintiff had no cause of action that was not subject to workers' compensation exclusivity, the trial court correctly dismissed his claims.