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Martha Salgado was injured at work when four fingers of her right hand were severed by a cutting blade in a meat-packing machine. Under the worker’s compensation exclusivity rule (Lab. Code, § 3600, subd. (a)), and under the power press exception to that rule (§ 4558), she cannot recover against her employer, Modern Meat, Inc. unless she can show that she was hurt while working on a power press that was lacking a point of operation guard.

Salgado worked for Modern Meat as the operator of a labeling machine at their meat packaging facility in San Bernardino. On the day of her injury, she was working at a VA-430 meat packaging machine. The VA-430 is roughly 20 feet long and three feet wide. It creates individual sealed packages through a four-step process. In the third step, a second sheet of plastic is heated and sealed to the first sheet by heat and pressure, and a cross-hatch or diamond pattern is embossed into the plastic from the sealing frame. Salgado contends that the imposition of the pattern into the plastic is a “stamping” operation. The purpose of the pattern is unclear. Modern Meat speculated the embossed cross-hatch pattern is decorative, improves grip on the package, or creates a better seal; Salgado’s expert could only propose that it would allow quality assurance to confirm that there is a seal between the upper and lower sheets.

The packages are separated at the last station by means of a 16-inch serrated blade and a series of circular-shaped knives. Salgado was injured in this step of the process when she cleared a jam from the machine. Salgado suffered partial amputation of four fingers on her right hand. A safety guard that would likely have prevented her injury had been removed by a line supervisor.

In her civil lawsuit against the employer, the trial court granted summary judgment to Modern Meat, finding that the VA-43 was not a power press within the meaning of section 4558. Salgado appealed. The Court of Appeal affirmed the dismissal in the unpublished case of Saldago v Modern Meat Inc.

Section 4558, subdivision (a)(4) defines a “power press” in the following terms: “‘Power press’ means any material-forming machine that utilizes a die which is designed for use in the manufacture of other products.” Title eight, section 4214, of the California Code of Regulations contains Article 55, subtitled “Power Operated Presses.” That article applies only to those mechanically or hydraulically powered machines that shear, punch, form, or assemble metal or other material by means of tools or dies attached to slides, commonly referred to as power operated presses. The trial court found that the VA-430 was not a power press. In announcing its decision, the trial court stated that the VA-430 was a “vacuum forming machine,” noting the absence of a “powerful pressing or shaping motion which can cause a serious crushing injury.” The trial court also found that the machine did not employ a die. There is little clear guidance in case law for the application of the power press exception.

Salgado’s counsel argues that the trial court’s ruling improperly included a requirement that the pressure applied by the machine must be powerful and that the finding that the VA-430 did not employ a die was factually incorrect. If there is a requirement that a “power press” apply powerful pressure, Salgado argues, it is Modern Meat’s burden on summary judgment to establish the VA-430’s lack of such pressure as an undisputed fact. Salgado argued that the sealing station’s cross-hatch impression is made by pressure, and also proposes on appeal that the sealing station utilizes pressure to hold the heated plastic against the pull of the vacuum pump. Salgado has presented evidence that the VA-430 employs both a die and pressure in its operation of those stations.

The Court of Appeal concluded that “although the cross-hatching or forming processes could inflict a serious crushing or pinching injury to an unprotected operator, the fact that a device can inflict a similar injury to those caused by a power press does not allow us to rewrite the statute to include the machine that caused Salgado’s injury…. It is an unreasonable construction of the statute to apply the power press exemption to any machine where there is an incidental application of pressure; a machine that applies labels to wrappers or icing to cupcakes employs pressure, but to equate it to metal-stamping presses would make the exception swallow the whole of the workmen’s compensation system. Although the VA-430 may have the characteristics of a power press, reason and precedent require us to give a narrow construction to the exception that places the VA-430 outside of its coverage.”