When Barbara Bossenmeyer was accidentally shot by an Orange County Sheriff sergeant while working at her desk in John Wayne Airport, family and friends were quick to reassure her that all her bills and any complications would be taken care of. 

Attacked at Work

A Voice of OC investigation found when county employees are injured by the sheriff’s department, they can’t get information on what happened to the officers involved and they can’t sue the department under state law.

[Read: Former County Employee Accidentally Shot by Sheriff’s Deputy Wants Answers on What Happened to Her]

“Everybody was like, ‘Oh you’ll be well taken care of,’” Bossenmeyer said, adding, “That’s not the truth.” 

When she looked at suing the sheriffs’ department, her lawyers told her that wasn’t an option. 

Under California’s worker’s compensation laws, employees can’t sue their employers when they’re injured at work in most cases according to the state’s Department of Industrial Relations’ guide for injured workers. 

In exchange, employers are required to have worker’s comp insurance and to pay for their injured employees’ medical bills as they come in, instead of wading through years of civil litigation to decide who picks up the tab.

Employees also don’t have to prove their employer was at fault in order to get the money, just that they were injured at work. 

The arrangement was billed as the “Great Compromise,” when it passed in 1917, but since then there’s been a fight between employees and employers over what should be covered. 

The biggest recent debate over worker’s comp came after the 2015 San Bernardino shooting, which saw multiple county employees forced to go through worker’s comp for medical assistance because they were injured at work. 

That set off a fight between San Bernardino county leaders and their injured employees over how much the county should be paying. 

It eventually led to new legislation in Oct. 2017, which requires employees injured in an act of terrorism to immediately receive “accessible advocacy services,” under the law

But those changes didn’t change things for people like Barbara or Jeff Coloman, who suffered similar injuries while at work.

[Read: County Employee Wants Answers On Sheriff’s K-9 That Accidentally Mauled Him]

A portion of worker’s comp law, known as “exclusive remedy”, forces employees injured at work to go through the worker’s compensation process instead of civil litigation for their medical bills. 

Under the state’s labor code, once an employee is injured at work the labor code states “the right to recover compensation is…the sole and exclusive remedy of the employee or his or her dependents against the employer.” 

To read the exclusive remedy state laws, click here.   

Because both the sheriffs’ deputies and John Wayne staff are employed by the county, that means county employees can’t pursue a lawsuit against the department if they’re injured by agencies like the sheriffs’ department because they’re both employed by the county.

“Every lawyer I spoke with that handles civil cases says they wouldn’t take it because of this law,” Bossenmeyer said. 

Dane Gilliam, the Orange County chapter president for the California Applicants’ Attorneys Association, said that while Coloman and Bossenmeyer’s case both fall under exclusive remedy, that doesn’t necessarily make it right. 

“I think that is the correct interpretation of the law, it’s kind of unfortunate,” Gilliam said in an interview with Voice of OC. “Is it fair? No it’s not fair, worker’s comp in general isn’t exactly an equitable system.” 

It’s an issue that’s harmed more than one county employee as they’ve realized state laws block them from pursuing any legal action against agencies like the sheriff’s department for injuring them.

While there are exceptions to the law that allow employees to sue, most of those exceptions require an employer to cover-up the injury, delay an employee’s attempt to seek medical attention or intentionally injure the employee. 

Workers can still receive a payout to cover their medical expenses, but they generally don’t get a multi-million payout they could expect for a private citizen injured by the sheriff’s department. 

Bossenmeyer pointed to the case of the Collazo family, who were sitting in traffic near the Chapman Ave. exit to the 57 freeway when they were rear-ended by a sheriffs’ investigator in 2017 driving a Ford F150, who was looking for his radio on the floor of the car while driving according to court records. 

Multiple people in the car “suffered serious and permanent injuries,” according to those same records, and a county jury awarded the family nearly $2.2 million in damages. 

“I didn’t even get close to $1 million for being shot by an assault rifle,” Bossenmeyer said. 

After four major surgeries to piece her arm back together, a year of recovery and nearly two years after her injury, Bossenmeyer’s worker’s comp attorneys won her $202,000 to cover any more medical problems that crop up from her injury over the rest of her life. 

“Yes they covered all my medical bills, and therapy. But at the end, they will only settle for the amount they think is necessary for future medical care,” Bossenmeyer said. “I couldn’t even buy the house I’m in with the money I settled with.” 

Jeff Coloman in his home on March 30, 2023. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Coloman was thrown into the same situation after a sheriff K-9 accidentally mauled him in his office at the county Public Works building in Santa Ana, tearing open his arm and leaving him with permanent nerve damage as his mother listened over a speaker phone. 

Coloman actually sued the county, but was eventually forced to settle after his lawyers told him the exclusive remedy law blocked any claims for restitution. 

 “The only commonality we have is we get our paychecks from the taxpayers,” Coloman said of the sheriffs’ department. “Barbara doesn’t work for the sheriffs, and I don’t.” 

His mother won $10,000 for the emotional stress of having to listen to her son being attacked over the phone.

Since then, he says he’s been stuck in an on and off battle with the worker’s comp system to receive basic medical care for his arm, requiring multiple depositions, legal fees and fights to get treatment. 

“I should be getting impeccable medical treatment in lieu of a personal injury lawsuit. That’s fair,” Coloman said. 

While he initially settled his worker’s comp case in Dec. 2021, he reopened the case in Feb. 2022 to argue for more money after his PTSD worsened. 

Because he hasn’t settled the case, he says every time he wants to get something for his injuries, there’s a three to four month delay as it works its way through the bureaucracy. 

“We fought it and it took about a year for them to approve my left arm and all they did was give me a cortisone shot,” Coloman said. “I shouldn’t have to buy a $6 armband, which by the way I bought with my own money cause they denied it.” 

Coloman said that a few days after his injury, county employees showed up outside his home in Orange, with all the paperwork about his injury already filled out and tried to get him to sign it. 

“The HR and upper brass at the county, they want you to immediately fill out what we call a 5020 form,” Coloman said. “As soon as you sign that dotted line, it now shields the county entirely from any lawsuit.” 

When asked why they shared their stories, both Coloman and Bossenmeyer said they wanted people to learn about the exclusive remedy laws and ask for change. 

“Californians need to know that law,” Bossenmeyer said. 

Coloman said it’s been years since anyone talked about changing worker’s compensation laws, and that it needs a new discussion. 

“The last time anyone looked at this was when Schwarzenegger was in office,” Coloman said. “I think it’s time to crack it open again.” 

Nick Gerda contributed to this report.

Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at nbiesiada@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.


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