In 2009, a tragic accident occurred at a manufacturing plant in Orange County when a water heater exploded and killed two employees. The incident was duly investigated by Cal OSHA, and criminal charges were eventually brought against two individuals. Then the Orange County District Attorney decided to seek huge civil penalties against the employer under California’s Unfair Competition Law (“UCL”). The trial judge was prepared to allow the case to go forward, but the Court of Appeal issued a writ of mandate dismissing the case on the grounds that federal OSHA law preempted, and did not allow an exception for, claims under the state UCL. The District Attorney appealed.
The California Supreme Court will now decide whether workplace safety issues can properly be characterized and challenged as “unfair competition”, and, in any event, whether federal law preempts and prohibits state prosecutors’ attempts to extract monetary fines outside of the traditional OSHA enforcement mechanism. The case will be argued on November 7, 2017 in Sacramento. Fox Rothschild LLP is representing the employer.