Congratulations to David Osorio on Published Opinion from the CA Court of Appeal

On June 17, 2024, the California Court of Appeal for the Second District issued its opinion in Chavez v. Alco Harvesting, LLC reversing and vacating the trial court’s order granting the defendants’ demurrer in a case involving the death of an employee who contracted Covid-19 at work.

Leodegario Chavez Alvarado worked as a foreman and bus driver for Alco Harvesting LLC., a full service custom harvest management company, specializing in agriculture related commodities and managing both domestic and h2a employees throughout the California and Arizona farming regions.  Many employers who employ seasonal farm workers offer employees housing and deduct the cost of rent from their wages.  During the Covid-19 pandemic, Alco housed employees at the Hotel Santa Maria, including Mr. Chavez. 

On or about June 26, 2020 Mr. Chavez began feeling ill with symptoms associated with COVID-19 and immediately reported feeling unwell to his supervisors.  On July 2, 2020, Mr. Chavez tested positive for COVID-19.   Within a week after his positive test, Mr. Chavez died.

Maria Chavez, Mr. Chavez’s widow, sued Alco in Santa Barbara County for negligence, premises liability, and wrongful death, alleging Alco knew that the close living quarters in which it housed employees facilitated COVID-19 transmission and that Alco failed to inform Mr. Chavez and his coworkers when COVID-19 broke out at the Santa Maria Hotel.  Moreover, she alleged Alco failed to report the outbreak to the health department or “implement adequate safety measures or measures to prevent or curb the outbreak.”

Alco argued in a demurrer attacking Ms. Chavez’s suit that the claims had to be adjudicated under the Workers’ Compensation scheme.  As a general rule, a person hurt on the job (or the surviving spouse of a deceased worker) can recover certain remedies only by filing a Workers’ Compensation claim.  But, a workers’ compensation claim does not ordinarily allow injured workers the ability to recover damages for pain and suffering.  In this case, the trial court agreed with Alco, essentially tossing out Ms. Chavez’s case seeking pain and suffering on behalf of Mr. Chavez.  

An exception to the general Workers Compensation exclusivity rule exists “[w]here the employee’s injury is aggravated by the employer’s fraudulent concealment of the existence of the injury and its connection with the employment . . . .” (Lab. Code, § 3602, subd. (b)(2).) Three elements comprise this exception: (1) the employer must have known that the plaintiff had suffered a work-related injury; (2) the employer concealed that knowledge from the plaintiff; and (3) the injury was aggravated as a result of such concealment. (Palestini v. General Dynamics Corp. (2002) 99 Cal.App.4th 80, 90; see also Jimenez v. Mrs. Gooch’s Natural Food Markets, Inc. (2023) 95 Cal.App.5th 645, 658.) The employer must have actual knowledge of the injury; constructive or imputed knowledge is insufficient. (Hughes Aircraft Co. v. Superior Court (1996) 44 Cal.App.4th 1790, 1796.)

In reviewing the trial court’s order sustaining Alco’s demurrer de novo, the court of appeal disagreed that Ms. Chavez had not sufficiently argued the three elements comprising the exception.

With the help of David Osorio and his former firm prior to joining DHG Legal, Ms. Chavez successfully appealed the Santa Barbara County Superior Court’s order.  She will now be able to proceed with her lawsuit and have her day in court.