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Got COVID from a loved one who was at work? Their employer owes you nothing, California court rules

A kitchen staffer works behind the counter of a restaurant in Los Angeles on June 8, 2021.
Pablo Unzueta
/
CalMatters
A kitchen staffer works behind the counter of a restaurant in Los Angeles on June 8, 2021.

A Bay Area woodworking employee caught COVID on the job and brought it home during the height of the pandemic. His wife contracted the illness and her symptoms were severe – at one point, she needed a respirator to breathe.

But she cannot claim workers’ compensation injuries from the infection, the California Supreme Court ruled today in answer to questions from a federal appellate court, because while doing so would be a moral good, that good is outweighed by the potential flood of litigation that would force businesses to close, tie up courts and send commercial insurance rates skyrocketing.

“Recognizing a duty of care to nonemployees in this context would impose an intolerable burden on employers and society in contravention of public policy,” associate justice Carol Corrigan wrote in the ruling. “These and other policy considerations lead us to conclude that employers do not owe a tort-based duty to nonemployees to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

It was the second major loss for California employees seeking compensation for COVID infections passed to family members. Last year, a longtime employee of See’s Candies lost a workers’ comp claim after she contracted COVID and passed it to her husband, who died.

Workers’ comp is inherently a bargain, Corrigan wrote in a unanimous opinion: Employees get some guarantee that they’ll be paid in the event of an injury suffered on the job, no matter whether they were at fault, and employers get to limit the amount and extent of that compensation.

The question, then, is whether an employer’s duty to protect its employees from injury extends to their families. Today, the court ruled that it doesn’t. But the court left the door open to more lawsuits, ruling that workers’ spouses who contract COVID can still file negligence claims against employers.

The facts of the case are a reflection of the push-and-pull concerning COVID regulations and essential businesses during the first year of the pandemic.

There’s little doubt that Nevada-based Victory Woodworks ignored San Francisco County health ordinances that demanded that employers quarantine potentially infected employees, the court found. Robert Kuciemba was employed at a Victory Woodworks jobsite for about two months when the company transferred a group of potentially infected workers to his San Francisco job site in the summer of 2020. He worked in close proximity to them and was infected.

His wife, Corby, caught COVID from him. She was older than 65, and her condition worsened until she was put on a ventilator. The couple sued, arguing that Victory Woodworks’ negligence led to her illness.

Though the Kuciembas sued in state court, Victory Woodworks had the case moved to federal court, where it was dismissed, a win for the woodworking shop and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which filed briefs in support of its defense.

Victory Woodworks argued that a win for the Kuciembas would have consequences far beyond workplace compensation.

“There is simply no limit to how wide the net will be cast: the wife who claims her husband caught COVID-19 from the supermarket checker, the husband who claims his wife caught it while visiting an elder care home,” the company argued in a federal court brief.

On appeal, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals sent two questions to the California Supreme Court. First, whether the California Workers’ Compensation Act bars an employee’s household member’s claim against an employer, and second, whether the employer’s duty to protect its employees from COVID infections extends to the home.

During oral arguments in May, justices on the state Supreme Court voiced concerns that a workers’ comp ruling in Kuciemba’s favor would open the door to an “avalanche of litigation” against businesses.

Nigel Duara joined CalMatters in 2020 as a Los Angeles-based reporter covering poverty and inequality issues for our California Divide collaboration. Previously, he served as a national and climate correspondent on the HBO show VICE News Tonight. Before that, he was the border correspondent at the Los Angeles Times based in Phoenix, deployed to stories across the country. He is a longtime contributor to Portland Monthly magazine and graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism.
CalMatters is a nonpartisan, nonprofit journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.