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Lucia Gonzalez was working for Seal Methods, Inc. (SMI) when she was severely injured while loading material onto a die in a power press. She sought damages from SMI in a lawsuit filed under Labor Code section 4558, known as the “power press exception” which allows an employee to “bring an action at law for damages against the employer where the employee’s injury or death is proximately caused by the employer’s knowing removal of, or knowing failure to install, a point of operation guard on a power press, and this removal or failure to install is specifically authorized by the employer under conditions known by the employer to create a probability of serious injury or death.” (§ 4558, subd. (b).) The trial court granted SMI’s motion for summary judgment, finding that section 4558 did not apply under the undisputed facts of this case.

The accident occurred while Gonzalez was operating a power press, referred to as Preco Punch Press No. 4. At the time of the accident, Gonzalez was operating the Press in “manual” mode because the material being shaped had to be moved onto and off of the die by hand. The Press was equipped with a two-hand activator system for operation in manual mode; the die would not strike unless the operator used both hands to press buttons located outside the strike zone (the “point of operation”). The purpose of this two-hand activator system was to ensure that the operator’s hands were outside the point of operation during the machine stroke. There was no evidence that SMI bypassed, removed, or tampered with the two-hand activator system on the Press used by Gonzalez. Nevertheless, on March 17, 2011, the Press activated while Gonzalez was loading material onto the die, crushing her hand.

Gonzalez subsequently filed the instant lawsuit for general, special, and punitive damages, alleging that SMI knowingly removed or failed to install a point of operation guard on the Press. SMI moved for summary judgment on the ground that the point of operation guard specified by the manufacturer of the Press – the two-hand activator system – was properly installed and activated, and the manufacturer did not specify or require any other point of operation guard. Gonzalez opposed the motion, contending that the operation manual for the Press requires the use of safety blocks (which are small wooden or metal blocks that are placed in the point of operation to physically prevent the machine from striking) whenever the operator’s hands are in the point of operation, and that those safety blocks constitute a point of operation guard. The trial court found there was no evidence that SMI received any communication from the manufacturer that safety blocks needed to be installed or otherwise attached to the Press, and granted SMI’s summary judgment motion. Gonzalez timely filed a notice of appeal from the resulting judgment.

The Court of Appeal affirmed in the published opinion of Gonzalez v Seal Methods Inc.

Labor Code section 4558 authorizes an injured worker to bring a civil action for tort damages against his or her employer where the injuries were “proximately caused by the employer’s knowing removal of, or knowing failure to install, a point of operation guard on a power press,” where the ‘manufacturer [had] designed, installed, required or otherwise provided by specification for the attachment of the guards and conveyed knowledge of the same to the employer.” Whether the section 4558 exception applies in this case hinges upon whether a safety block is a “point of operation guard” within the meaning of section 4558. If it is, the determination whether the manufacturer communicated to SMI that safety blocks must be used whenever a worker must manually position material on the die is a question of fact, and the facts are disputed in this case. But if a safety block is not a point of operation guard, section 4558 does not apply and the judgment must be affirmed.

Section 4558 does not define “point of operation guard,” but the language of the statute lead the Court of Appeals to conclude that a point of operation guard does not include an unattached device, such as a safety block, that the worker moves into and out of the point of operation. The Court concluded “Although we are sympathetic to Gonzalez, who suffered a horrible injury that might have been prevented had a safety block been used, we are bound by the Supreme Court’s directive to construe the section 4558 exception to the workers’ compensation exclusivity rule narrowly. Read in its entirety, section 4558 applies when an employer fails to attach or removes only those guards or devices, designed to protect workers, that are capable of being permanently installed by the manufacturer or the employer. The kind of safety block at issue in this case, which is not attached to the Press and is moved into and out of the point of operation by the worker, is not such a guard or device.”