In the case of Kuciemba v. Victory Woodworks, Inc., the California Supreme Court ruled that while take-home COVID claims filed by employee spouses aren’t barred by the exclusivity provisions of workers’ compensation law, employers owe no duty of care to non-employees.
Workers’ compensation claims are predicated upon injury suffered by an employee. An employee who files a workers’ compensation claim can’t also file a lawsuit against their employer, due to the exclusivity rules. But the spouse isn’t entitled to workers’ compensation if they get sick. And the claim here wasn’t based on the employee’s injury, but the spouse’s.
However, claims rooted in negligence must first establish that the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care. Employers, the Court ruled, don’t have a special relationship with the spouse’s of employees such that it establishes a legal responsibility to use reasonable care in preventing harm to them. The Court noted that while it’s foreseeable that negligence in employer policies and practices would increase the likelihood of spreading a highly contagious disease to employee household members, to recognize an employer duty of care to non-employees would “impose an intolerable burden on employers and society” that would be in contrast to public policy.
Of course, the bones of this case are more in the realm of injury/tort law rather than California employment law (which is our focus at Nassiri Law Group). But it’s still worth pausing to review, given how substantially COVID-19 upended so many workplace procedures, policies, and practices. So much of this was uncharted territory for the modern world. As such, California courts are still getting around to resolving workplace conflicts – direct and ancillary – that cropped up in the midst of the pandemic and its aftermath.
This case started when the plaintiff’s husband began working for the defendant in May 2020 at a northern California construction site. A few months after he was hired, his employer transferred some workers from one job site to another without taking appropriate disease prevention measures. Plaintiff’s husband, compelled to work side-by-side with other workers without proper protections, contracted COVID-19 and fell ill. He then transmitted the virus to his wife, the plaintiff, who went on to become extremely sick. She was hospitalized for weeks – part of that time on a respirator to breathe for her.
Prior to her sickness, plaintiff says she took all COVID-19 precautions very seriously – obeying restrictions and safety precautions, including significantly minimizing contact with other people. The only exception was her husband’s workplace, where he had frequent interactions with people – absent masks, social distancing, etc.
Plaintiff sued her husband’s employer for negligence, negligence per se (as a matter of law due to violation of the law), premises liability, and public nuisance. Her husband, also, filed a related claim for loss of consortium. After some initial back-and-forth, the trial court granted the employer’s second motion to dismiss, finding plaintiff’s claims were barred by the exclusive remedy of workers’ compensation laws and that an employer’s duty to provide a safe work environment don’t extend to people who don’t work there.
The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal affirmed, and as did the California Supreme Court. In its ruling, the state high court wrote that even if it were to narrow the duty of employer care to employee household members, the potential pool of plaintiffs would be “enormous… millions…”
This ruling in favor of California employers tracks with similar COVID/workplace related decisions in the past. In May, the California Supreme Court ruled in Garcia v. U.S. Old Bank that the widow of a worker who died after contracting COVID could not collect workers’ compensation death benefits because there wasn’t enough evidence to prove he caught it at work – even though another co-worker in an office of five tested positive for the virus the same day the decedent did. Even though a workers’ comp administrative law judge ruled there was a presumption the worker contracted the condition at work, the bank appealed, arguing there shouldn’t be a presumption because there was no outbreak at the time of the workers tested positive. The bank ultimately won. Courts have held there must be substantial medical evidence to support the conclusion that an employee’s COVID diagnosis is a workplace injury.
Contact the employment attorneys at Nassiri Law Group, practicing in Newport Beach, Riverside and Los Angeles. Call 714-937-2020.
Kuciemba v. Victory Woodworks, Inc., July 6, 2023, California Supreme Court
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