Labor & Employment

Top California court will consider employer liability for take-home COVID-19 infections

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The California Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether state law permits lawsuits against employers when workers contract COVID-19 and bring the virus home to relatives.

The top California court agreed last week to consider two certified questions by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at San Francisco, report Reuters and Law360.

The first question is whether employers owe legal duties to the households of their employees to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The second question is whether such suits are barred under the state’s derivative injury doctrine, which generally bars suits by third parties that are collateral to or derivative of injuries covered by workers’ compensation, according to this explanation of the doctrine by Davis Wright Tremaine.

California workers’ compensation statutes provide remedies to workers and third parties with injuries stemming from workplace injuries, according to Law360. Typical third-party claims include loss of companionship or trauma caused by seeing the employee’s suffering, according to Davis Wright Tremaine.

The federal appeals court sought the California court’s views in a suit by Corby Kuciemba and Robert Kuciemba against Robert Kuciemba’s employer, Victory Woodworks Inc.

A federal judge had ruled in May 2021 that Corby Kuciemba couldn’t sue after she became ill with COVID-19, allegedly contracted when her asymptomatic husband brought the virus home from work, according to prior coverage by Law360.

Senior U.S. District Judge Maxine M. Chesney ruled that Victory Woodworks’ duty to provide a safe workplace did not extend to people who weren’t employees. Chesney also ruled that the claims were barred by the exclusive remedy provisions of the state’s workers’ compensation law.

The California Supreme Court declined to hear a similar case involving See’s Candies Inc. and the spouse of a worker who died from COVID-19. A California appeals court ruled in the case in December that employers could be sued over take-home COVID-19 infections.

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