In 1997 Monnie Wright began working at San Quentin as a correctional officer. The following year, he moved into a State-owned rental unit within the gated area of the San Quentin grounds. Living there was voluntary on Wright’s part: it was not a condition of his employment with the State, and he paid market rate rent, receiving no discount or other employment benefit for living on the property. Wright’s original lease for the unit required that he obtain a “broad policy of comprehensive coverage of public liability insurance, naming the State as the insured.” It also contained an indemnity clause.
Wright was injured when he fell in the course of his lengthy walk from his home to his actual place of work. Wright left his rental unit that morning and began his walk to the Donner Unit to begin his 6:00 a.m. shift. As he neared the bottom of the first staircase just outside his unit, a concrete step allegedly collapsed beneath him, and he fell. Wright filed a claim for workers’ compensation benefits for injuries resulting from the fall. He received benefits in the form of medical expenses and disability payments. And in July 2012, he went on early disability retirement. He thereafter filed suit against the State asserting one cause of action, for premises liability. He alleged that he “fell and was injured when a defectively constructed and dangerously maintained stair crumbled beneath him.”
The State moved for summary judgment on the ground that Wright’s claim was barred by the workers’ compensation exclusive remedy rule. The motion was granted and the case was dismissed. The Court of Appeal reversed and remanded in the published case of Wright vs State of California.
The bunkhouse rule dates back to the 1920’s, with the earliest mention found in Associated Oil Co. v. Industrial Acc. Com. (1923) 191 Cal. 557. There, an employee who lived in a rooming house provided by his employer and on the employer’s property was injured when the leg of a chair on which he sat went through a crack in the porch floor, causing him to fall from the porch. The Industrial Accident Commission awarded the employee workers’ compensation benefits. The employer sought certiorari. And got it. The Supreme Court considered whether ” ‘injuries occurring about the employer’s bunkhouse situated on the employer’s working premises, sustained by employees during their leisure hours while reasonably using the bunkhouse in a proper manner during intermissions from work, the injury being due to unsafe conditions of the premises provided by the employer, are within the protection of the Workmen’s Compensation Act.’ ” It noted the general rule that “when the contract of employment contemplates that the employees shall sleep upon the premises of the employer, the employee, under such circumstances, is considered to be performing services growing out of and incidental to such employment during the time he is on the premises of the employer.” Applying this rule, the court held that the circumstances did not trigger workers’ compensation coverage. Specifically, it noted the employee fell from the porch on a Sunday – at a time when not at work and [he] was neither required to work nor to be on the premises.” Additionally, he had a choice of residing in a nearby town but opted to reside in the more convenient lodging provided by his employer.Under these circumstances, the court concluded, the employee’s injuries did not occur in the course of his employment, and it annulled the award.
Since 1924, a number of cases have addressed the bunkhouse rule, analyzing its application under a variety of circumstances. Applying the case authorities on the Bunkhouse Rule to the facts of this case demonstrates at the least a triable issue of material fact whether Wright was acting in the course of his employment at the time he was injured. Wright lived on the San Quentin grounds purely voluntarily. It was not required by his employment contract, nor was it necessary for him to live there. Indeed, the State expressly concedes “[i]t is undisputed that living in the residence was not a condition of Wright’s employment with the State.” Wright paid market rate for the rental, and the rental was not a benefit of his employment. Further, there was no evidence that Wright was ever on call or performed any work out of his rental unit. In its order granting summary judgment the trial court did not mention, let alone analyze, the bunkhouse rule, even though Wright raised it in his opposition, not even considering whether the fact that Wright lived on State-owned property should affect whether the premises line rule applied.