The California Supreme Court in Kuciemba v. Victory Woodworks, Inc was asked to rule on two questions by the 9th Circuit:
- If an employee contracts COVID-19 at the workplace and brings the virus home to a spouse, causing injury, does the California Workers’ Compensation Act (WCA) bar the spouse’s negligence claim against the employer?
- Does an employer owe a duty of care under California law to prevent the spread of COVID-19 to employees’ household members?
The plaintiffs in this matter are a husband and wife who filed a lawsuit against the husband’s employer. The husband worked for the employer at a construction site in San Francisco in 2020, where he was required to work in close contact with other workers who may have had COVID-19 in violation of the County’s health order. The husband’s employer allegedly failed to take COVID-19 precautions mandated in the County’s health order. The plaintiffs alleged because the employer failed to take precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the husband became infected with COVID-19. The husband then transmitted COVID-19 to his wife, who became severely ill and was hospitalized. Plaintiffs filed suit in federal court against the husband’s employer claiming negligence, negligence per se, and premise liability. The district court granted the employer’s motion to dismiss.
Plaintiffs appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit and the 9th Circuit requested the California Supreme Court rule on the two issues listed above.
Workers’ Compensation Act
As to the first question, the California Supreme Court ruled the WCA does not bar a spouse’s negligence claim.
With limited exception, the WCA is intended to be the sole and exclusive remedy of the employee or their dependents to collect compensation against the employer. Similarly, workers’ compensation benefits provide the exclusive remedy for third-party claims if asserted claims are “collateral to or derivative of” the employee’s workplace injury.
The Court distinguished between claims that were “collateral to or derivative of” the employee’s workplace injury, and claims that are merely factually related to the employee’s injury.
Specifically, the Court determined the WCA does not preempt claims where the injuries of the plaintiff did not require proof of the employee’s injuries as a legal factor for the plaintiff’s cause of action, even if the two injuries are factually related. Even if the plaintiff’s injury would not have been caused “but for” the employee’s injury, the causal link is insufficient to render the claims derivative.
Therefore, the WCA does not apply because, while the wife’s negligence claim against the employer was factually related to or caused by his injury, her claim was not legally dependent on her husband’s workplace injury.
Duty of Employer to Prevent Exposure
The Court ruled employers do not have a duty of care to prevent “take-home exposure” of COVID-19 to an employee’s household members.
California Civil Code section 1714 generally imposes an expansive duty of care, which the Court found could impose a duty of care upon employers. The Court determined the wife’s injury was reasonably foreseeable in that permitting the workplace spread of COVID-19 could cause an employee’s household members to contract the illness. The Court also determined the “moral blame” likely tilted toward finding a duty of care, as the employer could have profited off its failure to abide by the health order to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
However, the Court recognized imposing a duty of care upon employers to employees’ household members would impose a “significant and unpredictable burden” because it would be “impossible to eliminate the risk of infection, even with perfect implementation of best practices,” which could result in untold increases in litigation against employers with dire financial consequences. Given the high burden, this would impose on California businesses, the court systems in increased litigation, and burdens on the community, the Court favored creating an exception to the general rule of Civil Code section 1714. Therefore, the employer owed the employee’s wife no duty of care.
Without a duty of care, a negligence claim necessarily will fail against an employer.
If you have questions about the holding in this case or related issues, contact a Jackson Lewis attorney to discuss.