By: Jizell Lopez
Earlier this month, employers across this state were able to breathe a sigh of relief due to a long anticipated California Supreme Court ruling. On July 6, 2023, the Court held that employers do not owe a duty of care to prevent the spread of COVID-19 to employees’ household members.
In Kuciemba v. Victory Woodwork, Inc., Robert Kuciemba was a worker who claimed he had contracted COVID-19 while at the workplace. As a result of the alleged exposure, Mr. Kuciemba alleged he subsequently transmitted COVID-19 to his wife, who was later hospitalized and placed on a ventilator. As a result, in late 2020, Mr. and Mrs. Kuciemba filed a lawsuit in state court against the employer. Mr. Kuciemba’s wife asserted claims for negligence, negligence, per se, premises liability, and public nuisance. Mr. Kuciemba asserted a claim for loss of consortium. The case was removed to federal district court where it was dismissed in May of 2021. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals took the case on appeal before posing its questions to the California Supreme Court.
After nearly three years since the initial filing of the case, the Court determined that Mr. Kuciemba’s wife could not proceed with her claims. The Court reasoned, “although it is foreseeable that an employer’s negligence in permitting workplace spread of COVID-19 will cause members of employee’s household to contract the disease, recognizing a duty of care to nonemployees in this context would impose an intolerable burden on employers and society in contravention of public policy.” The Court focused its ruling on the potentially negative consequence of imposing such a duty on employers. The Court ultimately reasoned that the negative consequences would outweigh the benefits by creating an enormous burden, on not only employers, but the court system and the community.
Although the COVID-19 state of emergency in California has ended, the Court was also concerned with what its decision could mean in the future stating, “… if a precedent for duty is set in regard to COVID-19, the anticipated costs of prevention, and liability, might cause some essential service providers to shut down if a new pandemic hits.” That is, if employers who provide essential services knew they could be liable for employees’ household COVID-19 claims, they could be reluctant to provide those services in the future.
Employers should be relieved that this long awaited liability question has been put to rest for now. Employers should still adhere to and maintain all safety protocols mandated by state and local law.