As the pandemic rages on, employers have been asking us if they can be sued by a family member who contracts COVID-19 from one of their employees. A California court has recently suggested that the answer to this question is “yes.”
The case involved the world-famous chocolatier See’s Candies. One of See’s Candies’ employees contracted COVID-19 while working in one of the company’s manufacturing plants. That employee, in turn, passed the virus to her husband. The husband eventually died from the disease, and the wife sued See’s Candies for her husband’s death. In court, See’s Candies argued that the wife’s claim was barred under California’s worker’s compensation laws, under which job-related injuries are exclusively compensable through the State’s worker’s compensation provisions. In a case of first impression, the court rejected See’s Candies’ arguments and held that the State’s worker’s compensation provisions do not bar the wife’s lawsuit.
While we do not want to overstate the case’s holding (just because the wife’s lawsuit could proceed does not mean it will ultimately be successful), the case is an excellent reminder of what we have been saying all along: Employers must comply with all applicable COVID-19 regulations (federal, state, and local) to minimize legal liability. In fact, in the See’s Candies case, the plaintiff alleged that she contracted COVID-19 at work because her employer failed to implement adequate safety measures against COVID-19. While compliance is undoubtedly burdensome, it may be less costly than having to defend against a wrongful death claim.
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