Appeal Court Decision Upholds Injured Deputy's Award for Continuous Trauma Claims

The California 4th District Court of Appeal recently ruled that Riverside County is liable for a former deputy sheriff's cumulative trauma (CT) injuries even though he later worked as a police officer for a federally recognized Indian tribe.

The case involves Peter Sylves who served the County of Riverside as a deputy sheriff from 1998 until 2010. Subsequent to that, he worked as a police officer on the reservation of the Pauma Band of Luiseno Indians until July 4, 2014.

Sheriff's cumulative trauma injuries

Sylves had injuries to his shoulder, low back and knees, and suffered from hypertension, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERDS) and a sleep disorder.

The case went before a Workers' Compensation Judge who found that pursuant to Labor Code (LC) 5500.5, Sylves' CT claim was limited to "the last year of injurious exposure, even it if is with the Pauma Tribal Police." He found that Sylves's GERD, sleep disorder and knee and left shoulder injuries were not caused by his employment, but his hypertension and back injury were caused by his work with the County.  

Both Sylves and the County moved for reconsideration of the Judge's ruling to the Workers' Compensation Appeals Board (WCAB). The County pointed to LC 5500.5, which limits an employer's liability in CT claims to one year prior to the earlier of either the date of injury or the last date of harmful exposure. Therefore, according to the County's position, the liability should be imposed against the Pauma Police Department.  Sylves argued, among other things, that LC 5500.5 did not limit liability to the Pauma Police Department because the Pauma Band is a federally recognized tribe over which the WCAB has no jurisdiction.

The WCAB found "substantial medical evidence" to support work-related injury to Sylves's left shoulder, both knees, GERD and sleep disorder. It also found that Sylves's 2014 claim was timely because the timeline did not begin until a doctor told Sylves that the symptoms for which he was being treated were work-related (as per LC 5412). In addition, the WCAB panel agreed that it had no jurisdiction over a federally recognized tribe, therefore, liability had to be attached to the last employer over which it had jurisdiction; in this case that was Riverside County.

The County appealed this decision to the 4th District Court of Appeal, which found:

  • LC 5405 required Sylves to file his claim within one year of the date of injury and LC 5412 sets the date of injury for CT claims as the date on which the employee suffered an injury and knew, or had reason to know, that the injury or illness was caused by his present or previous employment. Sylves met this requirement.
  • The WCAB was correct in applying LC 5500.5 to place liability with the County. "It seems to us the fact that the Pauma Police Department is not subject to the WCAB's jurisdiction means the department was not insured for workers' compensation coverage," the court said. When the worker's last employer is uninsured, LC 5500.5 transfers liability to the previous employer, according to the court. In this case, that would be the County of Riverside.

"The decision of the Appeal Court emphasizes how vital it is for CT claims to be analyzed carefully when it comes to respective labor codes," says Steve Scardino, a partner in the firm of Gordon, Edelstein, Krepack, Grant, Felton & Goldstein (GEK). "And it reinforces the concept that liability may remain with prior law enforcement employment, which is important for many of our public safety clients who take tribal employment in law enforcement."

If you would like to speak with a GEK attorney about your legal options, please call 213-739-7000 or click here.

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