California Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Employers in COVID-19 Non-Employee Tort Claims

In a landmark ruling, the California Supreme Court recently decided in Kuciemba v. Victory Woodworks, Inc. that employers are not obligated to prevent the spread of COVID-19 to household members of their employees. The exclusivity clause of the California Workers' Compensation Act (WCA) is not a bar to claims made by a family member of an employee for negligence resulting from contracting COVID-19 from an infected employee at work, according to a unanimous ruling by the court. However, public policy considerations were taken into account, leading to the decision not to impose a tort-based duty on employers toward non-employees.

The case revolved around Robert Kuciemba, who contracted COVID-19 while working at a San Francisco construction site for Victory Woodworks, Inc., an essential enterprise under the City and County of San Francisco's health order. Tragically, Kuciemba brought the virus home, infecting his wife, who suffered a severe illness and required weeks of hospitalization on a respirator.

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The Kuciembas sought legal recourse by suing Victory for negligence and failure to follow COVID-19 protocols. However, the District Court granted Victory's motion to dismiss. On appeal to the Ninth Circuit, two critical questions were certified to the California Supreme Court. Firstly, whether the WCA's exclusivity provision barred the spouse's negligence claim against the employer Secondly, whether employers owe a duty of care under California law to prevent COVID-19 spread among employees.

The Court further clarified that the WCA's exclusivity provision did not limit Mrs. Kuciemba's negligence claims against Victory. As she sought reimbursement for her own injuries, not her spouse's, her claims were not derivative and thus valid.

Even though the WCA did not preclude Mrs. Kuciemba's claim, the Court unanimously decided that Victory had no obligation to stop COVID-19 from spreading to its employees' homes. Two key public policy concerns influenced this decision.

Firstly, the Court recognized the impossibility of entirely eliminating the risk of infection, with many preventive measures depending on employee compliance. Imposing extensive liability and preventive costs on employers might lead to the closure of critical service providers, thereby negatively impacting the community.

Secondly, the Court cited the potential litigation explosion that would burden the courts. The complexity of numerous plaintiff cases and fact-specific issues, coupled with the need for extensive discovery and expert testimony, would create significant strain and delays within the judicial system.

Despite the ruling protecting employers from non-employee tort claims for viral exposure, the Court acknowledged that the considerations might differ in the future when assessing public policy.

Although the WCA's exclusivity provision does not prohibit negligence claims from non-employee family members, the Court's decision aims to strike a balance between public health concerns and potential negative effects on businesses and the legal system.
This landmark ruling sets a precedent for similar cases and addresses the complex legal landscape surrounding COVID-19 liability in California.