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California Supreme Court Limits Employer Liability for COVID-19 Infections in Employee Households

by Melissa Whitehead | | July 12, 2023

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, employers have often asked about the limits of liability for workplace COVID-19 infections that spread to family members. Last week, the California Supreme Court gave us answers.

In the summer of 2020, Victory Woodworks violated local COVID-19-related health orders and an employee became infected. His wife was subsequently infected, hospitalized for several weeks, and kept alive on a respirator. The couple sued Victory Woodworks in federal court for damages related to the wife’s illness and injuries. Because the claims raised new questions of state law, the Ninth Circuit asked the California Supreme Court to answer two questions:

  1. If an employee contracts COVID-19 at the workplace and brings the virus home to a spouse, is the spouse’s negligence claim against the employer barred by California’s Workers’ Compensation Act?
  2. Does an employer owe a duty of care under California law to prevent the spread of COVID-19 to employees’ household members?

On July 6, 2023, the Court answered both questions in the negative.

Workers’ Compensation Exclusivity. Workers’ compensation benefits are the exclusive remedy for employees’ workplace injuries and a family member’s injuries “derived from an employee’s workplace injury.” However, this construction worker’s wife suffered her own independent injury when she contracted and was hospitalized for COVID-19. So, her claims were not legally dependent on her husband’s workplace injury and she was not limited to workers’ compensation benefits.

Duty of Care. However, the Court also ruled that Victory Woodworks did not have a legal obligation to prevent the spread of COVID-19 to the employee’s wife. The Court recognized that an employer should be able to foresee that a workplace spread of COVID-19 would cause employees’ household members to contract the disease. However, in large part due to the widespread and contagious nature of COVID-19, the Court found that making employers responsible to nonemployees in this context “would impose an intolerable burden on employers and society in contravention of public policy.” Imposing such a duty on employers would open a floodgate of litigation, placing significant burdens on employers, the judicial system, and the community.

The Court also recognized what we all know to be true – the social conditions and legal requirements related to COVID-19 are ever-changing – and left open the possibility that it could reach a different conclusion in the future.

It’s always nice to see California’s highest court issue an employer-friendly ruling, but the real take away to employers should be to keep monitoring COVID-19-related ordinances, regulations, and public health orders and avoid testing the limits of this ruling. You can read the full opinion here.

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