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Employers Have No Duty To Protect Employee’s Family Members From COVID-19
In May of 2020, San Francisco relaxed its shelter-in-place order via a Health Order to allow certain essential industries to reopen. Thereafter, Corby Kuciemba began working for Victory Woodworks (Victory). Victory employees at a different jobsite contracted COVID-19. The non-infected employees were transferred to the jobsite where Kuciemba worked. One of the transferred employees, however, was positive for COVID-19 and Kuciemba was exposed to the virus. Kuciemba’s wife then contracted the virus and was hospitalized.
The Kuceimbas sued Victory in the U.S. District Court, alleging Victory’s failure to protect its employees from COVID-19 caused the wife’s infection. The District Court granted Victory’s motion to dismiss on grounds that an employer’s duty to provide a safe workplace to employees did not extend to nonemployees sickened by a virus outside of the employer’s premises. The Kuceimbas appealed to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which then certified two questions for the California Supreme Court to answer.
The first question was whether the Workers’ Compensation exclusivity rule barred the wife’s negligence claim against the employer. In general, workers’ compensation benefits provide the exclusive remedy for third party claims if the asserted claims are “collateral to or derivative of” the employee’s workplace injury. The Court held that California’s derivative injury doctrine did not bar Mrs. Kuciemba’s negligence claims. The Court found that the wife’s claims were not legally or logically dependent on an injury Mr. Kuciemba sustained at work; Mr. Kuciemba’s mere exposure to COVID-19 at work was insufficient to render the claims derivative.
The second question was whether an employer owes a duty of care under California law to prevent the spread of COVID-19 to employees’ household members? The Court answered no. The Court acknowledged: 1) the foreseeability that an employee exposed to a virus would pass the virus to a household member; and 2) that the moral blame factor weighs in favor of establishing a duty since an employer would have greater ability to prevent the spread of the disease. The Court nonetheless held that policy considerations outweighed imposing such a duty of care on employers. Because that duty would impose a significant and unpredictable burden on California businesses, the Court concluded that no duty of care was owed to employees’ household members. The Court certified its answers to these questions to the Ninth Circuit.
Kuciemba v. Victory Woodworks, 14 Cal.5th 993 (2023).