Last week, the California Supreme Court agreed to decide two unique questions with far-reaching implications for employer liability: (1) may an employer be held liable to an employee’s spouse when an employee contracts COVID-19 in the workplace and then infects their spouse at home, and (2) does an employer have a duty of care to its employees’ households to prevent the spread of COVID-19?
The Ninth Circuit certified these questions to the California Supreme Court in Kuciemba v. Victory Woodworks, No. 21-15963 (9th Cir. 2022), after an appeal of a Northern District of California judge’s dismissal of a suit brought by a Victory Woodworks employee and his spouse. The Ninth Circuit heard oral arguments in March 2022.
In the underlying action, the employee and his spouse alleged the company’s negligence and lack of safety precautions in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic caused the employee to contract COVID-19 in the workplace, which he then unknowingly brought home and transmitted to his wife, causing her to become severely ill. The district court dismissed the case, finding not only that California workers’ compensation law’s exclusive remedy provision barred the suit because the spouse’s injury was “derivative” to the employee’s, but also that the employer did not owe a duty of care to the employee’s spouse.
The Ninth Circuit asked the California Supreme Court to decide these novel issues of law because of the lack of precedent in California and the California public policy implications if employers may be held liable for the spread of COVID-19 to employees’ households.
The Court’s answers to these questions could have a tremendous impact on employers since, although COVID-19 infection rates may rise and fall, the virus has shown no signs of disappearing. We will continue to monitor this case as it develops and will provide an update on the California Supreme Court’s decision.