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Matthew Vann, a firefighter with the San Francisco Fire Department (SFFD), responded to an emergency on Spear Street between Market Street and Mission Street in the City and County of San Francisco.

Louis Yu, a bus driver with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), then drove a bus through the location of the active emergency. The bus went over a firehose, which became entangled with the bus’s wheels and stretched until it broke off the fire engine it was attached to.

When the firehose broke away, it hit Vann’s legs, sweeping him off his feet and causing him to slam backwards onto the ground. His helmet flew off, and the back of his head struck the street surface. As a result, he sustained catastrophic injuries, including a traumatic brain injury, a fractured left clavicle, an internal hemorrhage in his right eye, and damage to his throat and vocal chords.

On November 4, the City sent Vann a “Notice Regarding Disability Pay/Labor Code section 4850 benefits.” The notice stated that the “City and County of San Francisco is handling Van’s workers’ compensation claim on behalf of SF Fire Dept.,” and that he was receiving workers’ compensation benefits for the injuries he sustained in the November 2, 2020 incident.

On November 8, Van filed a form complaint against the City and Yu, alleging causes of action for motor vehicle negligence, general negligence, and negligence per se. The complaint is sparse on detail: it alleges “Defendants negligently operated an SF Muni Coach 8800,” before briefly describing how the incident caused appellant’s injuries, and also alleges “Defendants violated [Vehicle Code sections 21707 and 21708].”

Defendants filed a demurrer on various grounds, including that the Workers’ Compensation Act (§ 3200 et seq.) provides the exclusive remedy for Vann’s claims against the City as his employer (§§ 3600, subd. (a), 3602, subd. (a)), and against Yu as his co-employee (§ 3601, subd. (a)). The the trial court issued an order sustaining the demurrer to the complaint without leave to amend.

The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court in the published case of Vann v. City and County of S.F. -A165231 (December 2023).

Section 3600, subdivision (a) provides that, with exceptions not relevant here, an employer’s liability to pay compensation under the Workers’ Compensation Act is “in lieu of any other liability whatsoever” if specified “conditions of compensation concur . . . .” (§ 3600, subd. (a); Kuciemba v. Victory Woodworks, Inc. (2023) 14 Cal.5th 993, 1006.) So, when the statutory conditions for recovery are met, the employer is immune from civil damages liability for on-the-job injuries because workers’ compensation is the injured employee’s “exclusive remedy.” (§§ 3600, 3601, 3602, subd. (a).)

A parallel exclusive remedy provision is section 3601, subdivision (a), which “prohibits actions against coemployees for injuries they cause when [acting within the scope of their employment.]” (Hendy v. Losse (1991) 54 Cal.3d 723, 730.)

As to Yu, Vann asserted he and Yu were not coemployees because (1) Vann was employed by San Francisco Fire Department (SFFD), while Yu was employed by San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency,(SFMTA), and (2) SFFD and SFMTA are separate legal entities akin to separate businesses within a multiunit corporate enterprise. As to the City, Vann argued there were no facts at that procedural juncture to support the conclusion that the City, as opposed to SFFD, was his employer as a matter of law. His arguments treat the City, SFMTA, and SFFD as three separate legal entities.

Bauer v. County of Ventura (1955) 45 Cal.2d 276, 288-289 (Bauer), which both parties cite, is instructive on whether a public entity is independent or a subsidiary of another entity. The Supreme Court rejected the “assumption that the district is a governmental agency separate and distinct from the county,”

Factors that may be considered in determining if an entity is independent include whether there is “[a]n express statutory declaration that the entity is a body corporate and politic”; whether the entity has “[a] governing body separate from that of the city, county, or district”; or whether it has “[s]tatutory power to own property, levy taxes, or incur indebtedness in its own name.” (California Governmental Tort Liability Practice (Cont.Ed.Bar 4th ed. Cal. 2023) § 3.5, citing Bauer, supra, 45 Cal.2d at pp. 288-289; Johnson v. Fontana County Fire Protection Dist. (1940) 15 Cal.2d 380, 385’387; Elliott v. County of Los Angeles (1920) 183 Cal. 472, 474-475; Anaheim Sugar Co., supra, 181 Cal. at pp. 217−220.)

The Court of Appeal concluded that additional case authorities and arguments “compels the conclusion that because SFFD and SFMTA are merely parts of the same entity, the City, it is the City that effectively employs both appellant and Yu. It follows that workers’ compensation provides the exclusive remedy for appellant’s claims against the City as his employer (§§ 3600, subd. (a), 3602, subd. (a)), and against Yu as his coemployee (§ 3601, subd. (a)). To the extent appellant attempts to draw an analogy between SFMTA and SFFD and two separate business entities within a multiunit corporate enterprise, such an analogy was rejected in Walker and Colombo. (See Walker, supra, 97 Cal.App.2d at pp. 903-904; Colombo, supra, 3 Cal.App.4th at p. 598.) And we reject it here.”