Every once in a while, a California court will issue a decision that is unexpected or, at least somewhat surprising. The California Supreme Court did just that in a recent decision titled Kuciemba v. Victory Woodworks, Inc., in which the Court ruled that employers do not have a duty to protect their employees’ household members from contracting COVID-19.
Kuciemba arose in the context of a “take-home COVID-19” case, where an employee (a husband) contracted COVID-19 at work (a construction site) and then transmitted the disease to his wife when returning home after work. The wife was subsequently hospitalized for weeks—indeed, even placed on a respirator. Thereafter, the wife sued her husband’s employer, alleging (among other things) that the employer negligently breached its duty of care to her by failing to take precautions to protect its employees’ household members from COVID-19.
The California Supreme Court ruled that the employer owed no such duty towards the employee’s household members, saying that the imposition of such a duty would place too onerous a burden on businesses if such a duty were recognized. In the Court’s words, “[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.” The ruling, while surprising, is welcomed news for employers and provides a defense in take-home COVID-19 cases.
But employers cannot take the Court’s ruling as an invitation for laxity more generally. For one thing, the Court made it abundantly clear that while an employer is not liable for COVID-19 cases that are transmitted to a worker’s household, employers unequivocally owe a duty to their employees to provide a safe and healthy workplace—the failure of which triggers liability regardless of whether any of the employee’s family members are so affected. For another thing, it is likely that the Court’s ruling is limited to the COVID-19 context and may not be otherwise applicable.
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