July 12, 2023

Employers Not Required to Prevent Spread of COVID to Employees’ Household, CA Court Holds

The California Supreme Court released an opinion in Kuciemba v. Victory Woodworks Inc., finding that the exclusive remedy provisions of the California Workers’ Compensation Act (“WCA”) do not bar a non-employee’s recovery for injuries that are not legally dependent upon an injury suffered by the employee, such as when, in this case, an employee allegedly carries COVID-19 home and transmits it to a household member. However, the Court further held that employers do not have duty of care to non-employees in this context to prevent the spread of COVID-19 to its employees’ household members.

The Facts: On May 6, 2020, Robert Kuciemba began working for Defendant Victory Woodworks Inc. (“Victory”) at a construction site in San Francisco. About two months later, allegedly without taking precautions required by the county’s health order, Victory transferred a group of workers to the San Francisco site from another location where they may have been exposed to the virus. Kuciemba alleges he became infected with COVID-19 after being required to work in close contact with these new workers and then carried the virus home with him and transmitted it to his wife, Corby. Corby was hospitalized for several weeks and, at one point, was kept alive on a respirator.

The Kuciembas sued Victory, asserting claims for negligence, negligence per se, premises liability, public nuisance, and loss of consortium. Victory removed the case to federal court and moved to dismiss. After allowing Plaintiffs leave to amend the complaint, the district court granted a renewed motion to dismiss without leave to amend, concluding: (1) claims that Corby contracted COVID-19 through direct contact with Robert were barred by the WCA; (2) claims that Corby contracted COVID-19 through indirect contact with infected surfaces were subject to dismissal for failure to plead a plausible claim; and (3) to the extent the claims were not barred by statute or insufficiently pleaded, they failed because Victory’s duty to provide a safe work environment did not extend to nonemployees, like Corby, who contract a virus away from the jobsite.

Plaintiffs appealed, and the California Court of Appeal for the Ninth Circuit certified two questions of California law, which the California Supreme Court agreed to answer: (1) If an employee contracts COVID-19 at the workplace and brings the virus home to a spouse, does the WCA bar the spouse’s negligence claim against the employer?; and (2) Does an employer owe a duty of care under California law to prevent the spread of COVID-19 to employees’ household members?

The Court’s Decision: The California Supreme Court held that the answer to both questions is, “No.”

As to the first question, the Court held the exclusive remedy provisions of the WCA do not bar a non-employee’s recovery for injuries that are not legally dependent upon an injury suffered by the employee. Under the exclusivity provisions, an employer’s liability to pay compensation under the WCA is “in lieu of any other liability whatsoever to any person.” (Lab. Code § 3600(a).) Similarly, with limited exceptions not applicable here, “the right to recover compensation is . . . the sole and exclusive remedy of the employee or his or her dependents against the employer.” (Lab. Code § 3602(a).) Thus, a family member’s claim for an injury derived from or collateral to an employee’s workplace injury is generally barred by workers’ compensation exclusivity (e.g., heirs’ claims for an employee’s wrongful death and a spouse’s claim for loss of consortium or negligent infliction of emotional distress caused by witnessing an employee’s injuries). However, as the Court explained in its decision, a family member’s claim for her own independent injury, not legally dependent on the employee’s injury, is not barred, even if both injuries were caused by the same negligent conduct of the employer. The Court specified that legally dependent in this context means an employee’s injury is required as an element of the cause of action. According to the Court, Robert’s infection may have been a factual step in the causal chain that led to Corby’s illness, but it was not necessary for Corby to allege or prove injury to Robert to support her own negligence claim. Accordingly, the Court concluded the exclusivity provisions of the WCA did not bar Corby’s tort claims against Victory, as they were not “legally or logically dependent on any workplace injury sustained by Robert, and the ‘but for’ causal link between Corby’s injury and Robert’s exposure to COVID-19 is insufficient, on its own, to render the claims derivative.”

As to the second, question, the Court held that 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, recognizing a duty of care to nonemployees in this context would impose an intolerable burden on employers and society in contravention of public policy. These policy considerations led the Court to conclude that employers do not owe a tort-based duty to non-employees to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In discussing the burden such a duty would impose on employers, the Court noted the following points: the duty to prevent secondary COVID-19 infections would extend to all workplaces, making every employer in California a potential defendant; the virus that causes COVID-19 is extremely contagious, making infection possible after even a relatively brief exposure; and the potential pool of plaintiffs would be enormous, numbering millions of Californians.

Takeaways: This case is certainly a win for employers. Indeed, the opposite result as to the second question—whether an employer has a duty to prevent the spread of COVID-19 to employees’ household members—would have had significant and immediate implications for employers. In finding there is no such duty, the Court found that most of the relevant factors weighed in favor of a finding of duty, particularly the most important factor of “foreseeability.” However, due to the significant burden resulting from employer liability for secondary COVID-19 infections, the Court decided against imposing a duty of care and liability for employers to prevent the spread of COVID-19 to its employees’ household members.