Employers not liable for spread of COVID-19 to workers' homes, California high court says
The California Supreme Court has held that under California workers’ compensation law, an employer does not owe a duty of care to prevent the spread of COVID-19 to its workers’ households because it would “impose an intolerable burden.” Image from Shutterstock.
Employers are not responsible for the spread of COVID-19 from their employees to their employees’ family members, according to a ruling from the California Supreme Court.
In its July 6 opinion, the state supreme court held that under California workers’ compensation law, an employer does not owe a duty of care to prevent the spread of the virus to its workers’ households because it would “impose an intolerable burden.”
“While employers may already be required to implement health and safety protocols to protect their employees from COVID-19 infections, concluding they owe a duty to the household members of employees has the potential to alter employers’ behavior in ways that are harmful to society,” wrote Justice Carol Corrigan for the unanimous California Supreme Court.
Corrigan noted that if employers could be held liable for COVID-19 infections outside the workplace, their precautions might hinder the delivery of essential services to the public. She said employers could also suffer dire financial consequences as “the pool of potential plaintiffs would be enormous, numbering not thousands but millions of Californians.”
In addition to these consequences, Corrigan added, “the potential litigation explosion facilitated by a duty to prevent COVID-19 infections in household members would place significant burdens on the judicial system and, ultimately, the community.”
Robert and Corby Kuciemba brought the case against Victory Woodworks Inc. in October 2020. Robert Kuciemba alleged that he became infected with COVID-19 after Victory Woodworks failed to take precautions required by a county health order and forced him to work in close contact with other employees in San Francisco. He alleged that he transmitted the virus to his wife, who was then “hospitalized for several weeks” and “kept alive on a respirator.”
After a federal district court dismissed their case, the Kuciembas appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at San Francisco. The 9th Circuit then asked the California Supreme Court to weigh in on the case and its issues of state law.
“The 9th Circuit has no choice but to adopt what the California Supreme Court has decided,” William Bogdan, an attorney for Victory Woodworks, told the Los Angeles Times.
Martin Zurada, an attorney for the Kuciembas, told the publication that they were disappointed in the decision.