California Supreme Court Limits The Spread Of Covid-19 Liability

A wife sued her husband’s employer after she became infected with Covid-19 and was hospitalized.  The case was removed from state court to federal court, and the federal district court dismissed her lawsuit because:  (1) her claims based on contact with her husband were barred by the exclusive remedy provisions of Workers’ Compensation Act (“WCA”); (2) her claims based on indirect contact with infected surfaces failed to plead a plausible claim; and (3) the employer’s duty to provide a safe workplace did not extend to nonemployees who contracted a virus away from the jobsite.  The case was appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and that court certified two questions to be decided by the California Supreme Court in Kuciemba v. Victory Woodworks, Inc., 2023 WL 4360826 (Case No. S274191 July 6, 2023).

The first question to be decided was if an employee contracts Covid-19 at the workplace and brings the virus home to a spouse, does the California Workers’ Compensation Act bar the spouse’s negligence claim against the employer?  The Court answered no to the question, finding the exclusivity provisions of the WCA do not bar a nonemployee’s recovery for injuries that are not legally dependent upon an injury suffered by the employee.  This holding is consistent with the earlier decision of See’s Candies, Inc. v. Superior Court, 73 Cal. App. 5th 66 (2021), wherein a wife brought Covid-19 home to her husband who died from the disease.  The appellate court did not dismiss the wife’s wrongful death claim as being barred by the WCA.

The second question to be decided was does an employer owe a duty of care under California law to prevent the spread of Covid-19 to employees’ household members?  The Court held that no such duty existed because recognizing such a duty would impose an intolerable burden on employers and society in contravention of public policy.  The Court noted that employees could encounter numerous potential sources of exposure to the virus every day from such activities as commuting to work or stopping at the grocery store on the way home.  Tracing the source of an infection would be difficult at best.  Moreover, the Court held that imposing a tort duty to each household member would throw open the courthouse doors to a deluge of lawsuits that would be fact specific, hard to manage, and clog the court system, and thus, was not in society’s best interest.

While the sole remedy for an employee who contracts a disease like Covid-19 in the workplace is the WCA, the same is not true if an employee exposes the family to such a disease.  The family member might have an independent cause of action.  If, however, the employee dies and a family member steps into the employee’s shoes and files a survivor action, the family member will be treated like the employee and wrongful death claims brought by the survivor will NOT be barred by the WCA.  Thus, the Supreme Court has given employers a little more guidance on their responsibility for injuries arising from Covid-19, but more questions than answers still abound.  Issues such as the scope of insurance coverage for Covid-19 claims are the next frontier facing employers and their potential liability.

Questions regarding this case may be directed to the author or your usual employment law counsel at Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo.

This AALRR post is intended for informational purposes only and should not be relied upon in reaching a conclusion in a particular area of law. Applicability of the legal principles discussed may differ substantially in individual situations. Receipt of this or any other AALRR publication does not create an attorney-client relationship. AALRR is not responsible for inadvertent errors that may occur in the publishing process. 

© 2023 Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo

Categories: Litigation

Other AALRR Blogs

Recent Posts

Popular Categories


















Back to Page

By scrolling this page, clicking a link or continuing to browse our website, you consent to our use of cookies as described in our Cookie and Privacy Policy. If you do not wish to accept cookies from our website, or would like to stop cookies being stored on your device in the future, you can find out more and adjust your preferences here.