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CA Courts Refuse to Expand Employer’s Duty to Prevent Spread of COVID

California employers scored a victory this week, as both the CA Supreme Court and US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit confirmed that employers owe no duty of care to prevent the spread of COVID to members of their employees’ households. The facts of the case, Kuciemba v. Victory Woodworks, Inc., were actually super interesting!

As a furniture and construction company with jobsites all over California, Victory was declared an essential business during the COVID lockdowns of 2020. While the lockdown was ongoing, several employees at one of its jobsites contracted COVID. Instead of requiring its non-infected employees at that site to quarantine, Victory reassigned them to other jobsites, including Mr. Kuciemba’s, in violation of the health orders in place at the time. Not surprisingly, one of the reassigned employees gave Mr. Kuciemba COVID, and in turn, Mr. Kuciemba gave it to his wife. While she was fortunate enough to survive her bout with COVID, she was hospitalized for a considerable time, during part of which she required a respirator to breathe. The Kuciembas sued Victory, claiming (among other things) that Victory caused Mrs. Kuciemba’s injuries by negligently failing to protect its employees from the spread of COVID.

The California Supreme Court said no dice and, in somewhat of a surprising opinion, cited policy reasons to support its decision. At first, they pointed out that spreading COVID and causing injuries to others under these circumstances was highly foreseeable and that moral factors largely tilted in favor of imposing a duty of care upon employers to prevent such a spread. Case closed, verdict for the Kuciembas, right? Wrong.

Notwithstanding these factors, our State’s High Court recognized the heavy burden that such a heightened duty would place on employers, the court system, and consequently, the community at large. In its opinion, the Court pointed out:

"Imposing on employers a tort duty to each employee’s household members to prevent the spread of this highly transmissible virus would throw open the courthouse doors to a deluge of lawsuits that would be both hard to prove and difficult to cull early in the proceedings."

In light of these societal factors, the Court said employers cannot be held liable in tort for COVID-related injuries suffered by non-employees, even if they acted negligently in failing to prevent the spread of COVID to their employees.

Alas! A California Court finally came down on the side of the employer, and for good reason. California businesses already have plenty to worry about in terms of ensuring their compliance with our state’s very strict labor laws. Those laws create numerous protections for employees and require a lot of action on the part of their employer. The public benefit of expanding protections for, and imposing duties that benefit, non-employees does not outweigh the burden that those protections and duties would impose upon the businesses that employ our workforce. Nor do those benefits outweigh the very foreseeable strain that litigation alleging breaches of those duties would place on the court system. It is refreshing and encouraging to see the California Supreme Court finally draw at least some line in the sand with respect to the legal claims to which employers have to answer.