Seyfarth Synopsis: The California Supreme Court unanimously held that while claims brought by an employee’s spouse for COVID injury are not barred by the Workers’ Compensation Act’s (WCA) exclusivity provision, policy considerations cautioned against imposing a tort duty to the members of an employee’s household. Kuciemba v. Victory Woodworks, Inc.
On May 6, 2020, Robert Kuciemba began working for Victory Woodworks, Inc. (Victory) at a construction site in San Francisco. Two months later, and without taking the required precautions as outlined in San Francisco COVID-19 health ordinance, Victory transferred a group of workers to the San Francisco site from another site where they may have been exposed to COVID. After being required to work in close contact with these new workers, Kuciemba was infected with the virus. Kuciemba then transmitted the virus to his wife, who was hospitalized for several weeks.
In October 2020, the Kuciembas sued Victory and asserted several tort claims. The District Court granted Victory’s motion to dismiss, concluding that (1) claims that Mrs. Kuciemba contracted COVID through direct contact with Kuciemba were barred by the WCA’s exclusive remedy provision, and (2) Victory’s duty to create a safe workspace did not extend to non-employees. The Kuciembas appealed to the Ninth Circuit, which then sought the California Supreme Court’s input on these two questions.
The California Supreme Court Decision
The Court first considered whether the WCA’s exclusivity provision barred Mrs. Kuciemba’s negligence claim. It concluded that her claim could proceed, even though her COVID infection resulted directly from her husband’s infection, which he sustained while on the job. The Court noted that while the derivative injury rule usually bars lawsuits from third parties arising out of a workplace injury (e.g., loss of consortium), the pertinent question was not whether an employee’s work-related injury was a “but for” cause of Mrs. Kuciemba’s infection; rather, the proper inquiry is whether the third party claim is “legally dependent” on the employee’s injury. Since Mrs. Kuciemba’s COVID infection and hospitalization were not legally dependent on her husband experiencing symptomatic COVID, her claim was not barred under the WCA.
Since the claim was not barred, the Court then addressed whether Victory’s duty to create a safe workplace extended to the spouses of its employees. While the Court noted that several factors weighed in favor of establishing such a duty, it ultimately decided against it.
The Court’s rationale was twofold. First, it emphasized that recognizing a duty of care to nonemployees in this situation would impose too heavy a burden on both employers and society in contravention of public policy. It explained that “[b]ecause it is impossible to eliminate the risk of infection, even with perfect implementation of best practices, the prospect of liability for infections outside the workplace could encourage employers to adopt precautions that unduly slow the delivery of essential services to the public.” And the precedent of such a duty, “might cause some essential service providers to shut down if a new pandemic hits.”
In addition, the imposition of a duty to prevent COVID infections of household members would greatly burden judicial economy. “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.” For example, the causation of a COVID infection would be virtually impossible for an employer to refute at the pleading stage, since a plaintiff need only allege plausible case theory. The Court closed by pointing out that “[i]f ever there was ever a ‘floodgates’ situation, this is it.” In short, while infections of this sort are foreseeable, the ramifications of extending a tort duty justify a departure from the default rule of liability.
What Kuciemba Means for Employers:
While this case’s reach is partially limited by the extraordinary nature of the COVID pandemic, the fact that the Court placed clear limits on workplace COVID exposure claims is a welcome result. Furthermore, the decision is beneficial to employers in relation to the Court’s language regarding consideration of the societal effects of overbroad workplace liability and the unmanageability of similar claims.