California Supreme Court Spares Employers From Tsunami of Spousal COVID Claims

California Supreme Court Spares Employers From Tsunami of Spousal COVID Claims

The California Supreme Court handed down its much-anticipated decision in Kuciemba v. Victory Woodworks, Inc., holding that an employer cannot be liable for injury to an employee’s spouse when the employee transmits their workplace-acquired COVID infection to their spouse.  The Court’s decision, on public policy grounds, is a lifeline for California employers who faced substantial litigation risk and cost from similar claims.

The case arose from an infection in May 2020, during the initial shutdown phase of the COVID pandemic.  Plaintiff alleged that her husband was infected at his job on a construction site when a group of employees exposed to COVID elsewhere were transferred to his site, in violation of a City and County health order.  Plaintiff alleged that she was then infected from exposure to her husband or his personal effects.  Plaintiff was hospitalized for several weeks and, at one point, kept alive by a respirator.  Plaintiff sued her husband’s employer alleging negligence.  The case was removed to district court and dismissed with leave to amend.  After adding a public nuisance claim, the amended complaint was dismissed without leave to amend.

The district court held that: (1) claims that the spouse contracted COVID-19 through direct contact with the employee were barred by the Workers’ Compensation Act’s exclusive remedy provisions; (2) claims that the spouse contracted COVID-19 through indirect contact with infected surfaces were subject to dismissal for failure to plead a plausible claim; and (3) to the extent the claims were not barred by statute or insufficiently pleaded, they failed because Victory’s duty to provide a safe workplace did not extend to nonemployees, like the employee’s spouse, who contract a virus away from the jobsite.  The case was appealed to the Ninth Circuit, which in turn certified questions of California law to the California Supreme Court.

While rejecting the district court’s analysis, the California Supreme Court affirmed dismissal.  The Court rejected the district court’s holding that the claims were barred by workers’ compensation exclusivity and that California’s statutory duty of care (Civil Code 1714) could not apply to Plaintiff, holding that the lack of a “special relationship” between the employer and spouse was not dispositive.

However, the Court held that public policy justified an exception to that general statutory duty of care.  Specifically, the Court employed the so-called Rowland analysis, a multi-factor test used to determine whether, on balance, public policy justifies a departure from Civil Code section 1714’s default rule of duty.  Roland v. Christian, 69 Cal.2d 108 (1968).  The Rowland analysis looks at two distinct sets of factors: “The first group involves foreseeability and the related concepts of certainty and the connection between plaintiff and defendant. The second embraces the public policy concerns of moral blame, preventing future harm, burden, and insurance availability. The policy analysis evaluates whether certain kinds of plaintiffs or injuries should be excluded from relief.”

Finding that the foreseeability tipped in favor of plaintiff, while public policy tipped in favor of the employer, the Court held that the general statutory duty of care did not apply here.  The Court recognized that “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. Although it is foreseeable that employees infected at work will carry the virus home and infect their loved ones, the dramatic expansion of liability plaintiffs’ suit envisions has the potential to destroy businesses and curtail, if not outright end, the provision of essential public services.”  Under the Rowland analysis, the Court held that “[t]hese are the type of ‘policy considerations [that] dictate a cause of action should not be sanctioned no matter how foreseeable the risk.’”

The Court’s holding avoids the feared “deluge” of family infection cases against employers in California.  The Kuciemba Court joins three other jurisdictions rejecting similar theories of employer liability for a family member’s COVID infection under Maryland, Wisconsin, and Illinois law, respectively.

Michael Chait