In the age of the COVID-19 pandemic, can an employer be held responsible for the health and safety of an employee’s family? The answer is maybe for now, but cases in California could change that.
How can an employer possibly be liable if a worker’s family gets sick? That’s a question that has become a hot button issue in California “as courts have been inundated with cases involving workers” exposed to COVID-19 at work who then bring the virus home to their families, law firm TALG says.
At least one California appeals court has ruled that an employer can be held liable for a family member getting COVID-19 from an employee who allegedly contracted it on the job.
Employee’s husband dies from COVID
The case in question, See’s Candies v. Superior Court, saw the Court of Appeal for California’s Second Appellate District finding that an employee’s lawsuit following the COVID-related death of her spouse wasn’t barred by the state’s Workers’ Compensation Act.
Matilde Ek worked for See’s Candies on an assembly line and packing line producing candy.
Ek claimed that she contracted COVID-19 at work because the company failed to provide safeguards such as social distancing.
After getting COVID, Ek recovered at home where she claims she exposed her daughter and husband to the coronavirus. Both of her family members contracted the virus, with the husband dying from COVID-19 less than a month later.
Courts allow lawsuit to proceed
Ek’s lawsuit against her employer is based on general liability and premises liability claiming See’s Candies was responsible for the wrongful death of her husband.
In court, See’s Candies sought to get the case dismissed, arguing Ek’s claims were preempted by the California Workers’ Compensation Act since her husband’s death was derivative of her work-related injury.
A trial court found the death wasn’t derivative of Ek’s illness but could have existed regardless of whether she had become sick with COVID-19, which meant her lawsuit could move forward.
See’s Candies appealed, once again arguing that workers’ compensation was Ek’s sole remedy.
The appeals court said that with certain injuries directly resulting from an employee’s work-related injury workers’ compensation could be the sole remedy. That would be true for things like the death of the employee, loss of income, loss of consortium or emotional distress in certain situations.
However, third-party injuries aren’t automatically derivative just because they were caused by an employee’s injury or illness.
In Ek’s case, her claims weren’t derivative of her COVID-19 illness, the court found.
Questions for California Supreme Court
A separate but similar case in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, Kuciemba v. Victory Woodworks, saw the court attempting to answer the questions: Does an employer owe a duty to the household of its employees to prevent the spread of COVID and is a spouse’s claim of injury resulting from an employee’s workplace exposure to COVID derivative of the employee’s injury?
But the Ninth Circuit determined those questions were better answered by the California Supreme Court, which has yet to weigh in.
See’s Candies still hasn’t appealed the most recent decision and the California Supreme Court hasn’t made any other rulings at this point on those two key questions.
Effect on third-party injuries
If and when the California Supreme Court rulings on See’s Candies and Kuciemba do come, the response may have “profound ramifications for not only the existing and future COVID-related cases, but to any claim by third parties for injuries related to a workplace injury or illness,” according to TALG.
That means most common types of third-party injuries will remain within the exclusive jurisdiction of the Workers’ Compensation Act, but if the California Supreme Court rules consistently with See’s Candies, there would be a broadening of exceptions to the exclusivity.