As COVID-19-related litigation increases, courts are being called upon to interpret the scope of employers’ duties to protect their employees with relation to the virus. Last week, a California federal judge dismissed a lawsuit brought by a spouse attempting to hold her husband’s employer liable for her COVID-19 infection. The judge held that California’s worker’s compensation law barred the wife’s claim, noting that the employer’s duty to provide a safe work environment is limited to the employer’s employees.
In the matter of Corby and Robert Kuciemba vs. Victory Woodworks, Inc., Mr. and Mrs. Kuciemba both tested positive and were hospitalized with COVID-19. Though Mr. Kuciemba was no longer an employee of Victory Woodworks at the time he tested positive, he claimed that he contracted the virus from his former worksite and filed a claim for workers’ compensation. Mrs. Kuciemba also filed a lawsuit against Victory Woodworks on various negligence theories.
In February 2021, the California District Court granted Victory Woodworks’ motion to dismiss Mrs. Kuciemba’s case, citing that her claims were barred because worker’s compensation was the exclusive remedy for her claims.
Mrs. Kuciemba amended her Complaint, arguing that Victory Woodworks did not exercise ordinary care to prevent exposure to COVID-19, as a result of which, Mr. Kuciemba was exposed to the virus, and brought home the virus on his clothes and other personal items. This legal concept of “take-home exposure” is common in asbestos litigation, and is founded on the idea that employers and premises owners have a duty to exercise ordinary care to prevent exposure to asbestos due to asbestos fibers being carried on workers’ clothing.
The District Court rejected Mrs. Kuciemba’s argument, finding that she failed to plead a plausible claim. Specifically, the Court found the employer’s duty was only to provide a safe workplace to its employees. The Court found this duty did not extend to nonemployees who contract a viral infection away from the workplace.
While employers should continue to track and comply with federal, state, and local mandates, this ruling suggests that California employers do not need to implement special protections for, or otherwise owe duties to protect individuals who are not their employees from COVID-19.
Jackson Lewis continues to track COVID-19 related developments. If you have questions about COVID-19 workplace compliance contact a Jackson Lewis attorney to discuss.