Date: February 8, 2018


WHO: The Supreme Court of California

WHAT: Overturned a decision by the 4th District Court of Appeal in a unanimous opinion written by the Supreme Court Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye and affirmed the position of the Orange County District Attorney’s Office (OCDA).

Circumstances of the Case

Beginning in 2007, Solus Industrial Innovations (Solus) operated a plastics manufacturing plant in Rancho Santa Margarita. Solus willfully, knowingly, and intentionally maintained an unsafe and hazardous work environment for their employees.

When the business relocated certain operations from Pennsylvania to Orange County in 2007, the defendants intentionally discarded a commercial boiler to avoid the cost and permitting requirements of proper installation. Solus instead purchased and installed an inexpensive residential water heater, knowing that it was not equipped to function at a commercial level. In March 2009, the water heated exploded, senselessly killing two employees.

The Division of Occupational Safety and Health investigated and “determined the explosion had been caused by a failed safety valve and the lack of ‘any other suitable safety features on the heater due to ‘manipulation and misuse’ because Solus used a residential water heater instead of a commercial one.”

In March 2012, the OCDA filed a civil suit against Solus’s plant manager and its maintenance supervisor for felony violations of Labor Code section 6425 subdivision (a) for knowingly operating an unsafe work environment, which resulted in the death of two employees.

The OCDA also filed the present civil action against Solus. The complaint alleged four causes of action, “all based on the same worker health and safety standards placed at issue in the administrative proceedings.” Only two of the causes of action are at issue here. One “allege[d] that Solus’s failure to comply with workplace safety standards amount[ed] to an unlawful, unfair and fraudulent business practice under Business and Professions Code section 17200, and the district attorney request[ed] imposition of civil penalties as a consequence of that practice, 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.

Solus claimed the federal OSH Act preempted state laws. (29 U.S.C. § 651 et seq.) The Court of Appeal agreed with Solus and concluded the federal OSH Act preempted the district attorney’s UCL and FAL claims.

Today, the Supreme Court of California issued a unanimous opinion reversing the Court of Appeal’s decision.

District Attorney Tony Rackauckas stated, “This is a tragic case where two men were senselessly killed while working to provide for their families.  We are grateful to the California Supreme Court for unanimously seeing the law the way the Orange County District Attorney’s Office did so we can continue to keep work places safe.”

Deputy District Attorney Kelly Ernby of the OCDA’s Environmental Protection Unit is the assigned prosecutor and argued the case before the Supreme Court of California.

WHEN: Today, Feb. 8, 2018

Read the full Supreme Court opinion here.