Menu Close

John Coffman, a longtime employee of the California Department of Transportation, died by suicide in 2015.  He began working for Caltrans doing landscape maintenance work in the early 2000s.

Since at least May 1998, Caltrans has had a “zero tolerance” policy for workplace violence, including threats, harassment, verbal abuse, bullying, and intimidation. He began reporting incidents of verbal abuse, intimidation, and threats of physical harm starting in 2002. He documented incidents nearly every year until 2015.

The October 2, 2015 incident caused him to be “extremely stressed out.” The following day, Coffman went to the hospital; his blood pressure was elevated, and he was prescribed medication to “help [him] cope.” He was placed on leave due to emotional distress. He was scheduled to return to work on January 4, 2016, however he committed suicide on December 30, 2015.

His wife and son sued Caltrans and Coffman’s supervisor, Michael Nelson, for wrongful death. They allege that Coffman was bullied, ridiculed, and harassed at work by a number of coworkers and that Caltrans and Nelson failed to prevent those acts, causing Coffman’s death.

Caltrans and Nelson moved for summary judgment on the basis of their affirmative defense that the Coffmans’ claims are barred by workers’ compensation exclusivity. The trial court granted that motion.

The Court of Appeal affirmed the dismissal in the unpublished case of Coffman v. Dept. of Transportation.

The issue was whether the conduct of Nelson and Caltrans fell outside the compensation bargain such that workers’ compensation exclusivity does not bar appellants’ action. Coffmans advance two arguments for why their claims are not barred.

First, they maintain that the conduct of Coffman’s coworkers amounted to harassment, which they assert falls outside the compensation bargain. They further argue that Caltrans and Nelson ratified that conduct by failing to prevent it, such that they may be held liable for it. Second, appellants contend that Caltrans and Nelson’s failure to enforce Caltrans’s workplace violence prevention policy violated a fundamental policy of this state.

Analyzing the incidents individually reveals that the majority of the complained-of conduct by Coffman’s coworkers was within the compensation bargain. The incident in which Flores battered Coffman is an obvious exception, but that incident was investigated, Flores was found to have violated Caltrans’s workplace violence policy, and he was fired. Accordingly, Caltrans and Nelson cannot be said to have ratified that conduct and thus cannot be held liable for it.

Retaliation in violation of the FEHA, which count 2 does allege, likewise is outside the compensation bargain.