A Student Injured In Class Is Not An “Employee”

The Court of Appeal in a certified opinion has ruled that a student at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo (Cal Poly) is not an “employee” or entitled to Workers’ Compensation benefits.

The applicant was a full time student at Cal Poly. The applicant enrolled in a course in animal husbandry that involved obtaining experience in commercial cattle breeding. The animals, tools and equipment were provided to the applicant who paid tuition for the class.

Each student had to sign an agreement that indicated that if they worked a certain number of hours they would be eligible to receive a portion of the net profits when the cattle were sold.  There was also an insurance provision in the agreement for the student’s medical or dental bills as a result of an accident.

The applicant spent between six and twelve hours a week performing her course work. While performing her class assignment she had a vehicle accident and suffered injury to her knees. She filed an application for benefits for workers’ compensation.

The defendant denied she was an employee. The case was tried before a Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board Judge. (WCJ) The WCJ determined the applicant was not an employee because she was not paid wages. The applicant filed a petition for reconsideration. The Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board (WCAB) denied the petition. The applicant filed for a writ of review with the appellate court which was denied. The applicant petitioned the Supreme Court which granted review and transferred the case back to the appellate level for an opinion.

When the facts are undisputed, as in this case, the determination of whether one is an employee is a question of law.

The court looked at Labor Code section 3351 for the definition of an employee. They next analyzed the case of Coburn v. WCAB (1989) 54 CCC 129. This was a writ denied case. Both the WCJ and the WCAB relied on this case.

The applicant cited two other cases but the court differentiated them as not being similar to the case in chief.  The court recognized that students may be employees of a school.  However, the students of a school are not employees. Students are merely consumers of a product, the university’s education. The key question is whether the student is “rendering service” to the university to be classified as an employee. This court ruled the university was the one “rendering service” to the student. Therefore, the applicant was found not to be an employee.

Case: Land V. WCAB; Cal Poly Foundation

Harvey Brown
3501 Jamboree Rd. Suite 602
Newport Beach, CA 92660

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