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The Supreme Court of California recently held that the California Workers’ Compensation Act (WCA) does not bar an employee’s spouse from bringing a negligence claim against the employer where the employee contracts COVID-19 at the workplace and brings the virus home to the employee’s spouse. In Kuciemba v. Victory Woodworks, Inc., the court reasoned that exclusivity provisions of the WCA do not bar a nonemployee spouse’s recovery for injuries that are not legally dependent upon an injury suffered by the employee.

The court also held that an employer does not owe a duty of care under California law to prevent the spread of COVID-19 to an employee’s household members.

“Although it is foreseeable that an employer’s negligence in permitting workplace spread of COVID-19 will cause members of employees’ households to contract the disease,” the court stated, “recognizing a duty of care to nonemployees in this context would impose an intolerable burden on employers and society in contravention of public policy.”

Quick Hits

  • A company whose employee allegedly contracted COVID-19 on the job and infected a nonemployee family member did not owe a duty of care to prevent the spread of COVID-19 beyond the workplace, the Supreme Court of California held.
  • Recognizing a duty of care in such a case would create a “significant and unpredictable burden” on employers, the courts, and the community at large, the court stated.
  • California’s derivative-injury doctrine bars a third party’s WCA claim “only when proof of an employee’s injury is required as an element of the cause of action.”

Kuciemba involved a construction employee who became infected with COVID-19, brought the virus home, and transmitted it to his wife, who was then hospitalized for several weeks as a result. The employee and his wife sued his employer in state court, where she alleged negligence, negligence per se, premises liability, and public nuisance. (The employee filed a workers’ compensation claim for his injury and did not allege a direct negligence claim, though he asserted a claim for loss of consortium.)

The case was subsequently removed to federal court and appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which certified questions of California law concerning the scope of an employer’s liability for claims under the WCA and Civil Code section 1714 (which articulates a general duty of care) when an employee’s spouse is injured by the transmission of COVID-19.

The Supreme Court of California’s unanimous opinion provides a detailed discussion on workers’ compensation exclusivity, the derivative-injury doctrine, the duty of care, and policy considerations behind the duty of care. The court also discussed several non-California decisions, all of which declined to recognize a duty for employers to prevent the spread of COVID-19 outside the workplace.

Though employers may face possible liability for workers’ compensation negligence claims brought by employees’ household members, the court’s holding that employers do not owe a general duty of care to prevent the spread of COVID-19 to employees’ household members is welcome news for California employers.

As noted by the court, to have held otherwise would have placed a “significant and unpredictable burden … on California businesses, the court system, and the community at large.”

Ogletree Deakins will continue to monitor developments and will provide updates on the California and COVID-19/Coronavirus blogs as additional information becomes available.

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