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The California Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeal and held that an action by the Orange County District Attorney for civil penalties under the Unfair Competition Law was not preempted by Fed/OSHA . The ruling allows public prosecutors to invoke the UCL to pursue big civil penalties and injunctive relief against employers who fail to comply with workplace safety regulations.

Solus Industrial Innovations, LLC manufactures plastics at its Orange County facility. In 2007, it installed at the facility an electric water heater that was designed for residential use. In March 2009, the water heater exploded, killing two employees.

The Division of Occupational Safety and Health determined that the explosion had been caused by a failed safety valve and the lack of any other suitable safety features on the heater. In an administrative proceeding, the agency charged Solus with five violations of state occupational safety and health regulations, and also cited Solus with a willful violation for failing to maintain the water heater in a safe condition.

In addition, because two employees had died, the Division forwarded the investigation results to the District Attorney of Orange County. (See Lab. Code, § 6315, subd. (g).) In March 2012, the district attorney filed criminal charges against Solus’s plant manager and its maintenance supervisor for felony violations of Labor Code section 6425, subdivision (a).

The Orange County District Attorney also brought an action for civil penalties under this state’s unfair competition law (UCL; Bus. & Prof. Code, § 17200) and fair advertising law (FAL; id., § 17500) against an employer. The action alleged the employer violated workplace safety standards established by the state occupational safety and health law (Cal/OSHA; Lab. Code, § 6300 et seq.) and attendant regulations.

It alleged that Solus’s failure to comply with workplace safety standards amounted to an unlawful, unfair and fraudulent business practice under Business and Professions Code section 17200, and the district attorney requested imposition of civil penalties in the amount of up to $2,500 per day, per employee, for the period from November 29, 2007, through March 19, 2009.

The second was a claim that Solus “made numerous false and misleading representations concerning its commitment to workplace safety and its compliance with all applicable workplace safety standards, and as a result of those false and misleading statements, Solus was allegedly able to retain employees and customers in violation of Business and Professions Code section 17500.” The district attorney requested imposition of civil penalties in the same amount for the same period.

The employer contended, and the Trial Court and Court of Appeal ruled that the district attorney’s action was preempted by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. The California Supreme Court reversed in the case of Solus Industrial Innovations, LLC v The Superior Court of Orange County.

The Supreme Court concluded that “the federal OSH Act contemplates a cooperative system of workplace safety regulation, not an exclusively federal one. When federal schemes involve cooperation and concurrent jurisdiction, this circumstance also suggests that the scope of preemption was not intended to be broad.”

“Finally, we reiterate the strong presumption against preemption, arising both from the fact that the federal legislation addresses an area that has been the long-standing subject of state regulation and from the fact that California has assumed responsibility under the federal OSH Act to regulate worker safety and health, thereby preempting federal law.”