A California Court Wrestles with the Changing Workplace

By editor on April 11, 2022

California law generally requires employers to provide employees with a safe place to work. However, the recent trend towards increased working from home has stretched application of this general rule. In a case that has implications for working-from-home scenarios as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Colonial Van & Storage, Inc v. Superior Court, case no. 8317125, the California Second District Court of Appeal held that employers do not have a duty to ensure coworkers and business associates are safe from a third party’s criminal conduct when they are visiting the private residence of an employee who works from home.

Colonial Van & Storage (“Colonial”) employed a married couple in different positions. The wife was allowed to work at home. On this particular occasion, a coworker and another person who knew the wife in a business capacity had dinner at the married couple’s home. The adults socialized but also engaged in job-related discussions and tasks. During the evening, the couple’s son, who lived at their home and who had a history of mental illness, shot and wounded both the wife’s co-worker and the business associate. The two sued Colonial, along with their host, for negligence and infliction of emotional distress.

On an appeal from the trial court’s denial of Colonial’s motion for summary judgement, the Appellate Court declined to impose a duty on an employer to ensure a working-from-home employee’s private residence is safe for visiting coworkers and business associates from a third party’s criminal conduct when the triggering event was unforeseeable. There was no evidence the couple’s son posed a risk of harm to working-at-home employees, or that Colonial knew of the son’s mental illness and gun use. There was also no evidence of prior threats or acts of violence that would have put Colonial on notice that this type of incident could occur.

Further, the Appellate Court found that, for public policy reasons, imposition of a duty on an employer to ensure that this particular harm does not occur would be onerous. Employers would be required to inspect the home, vet residents and visitors, and monitor the home to ensure against future harmful events. The court found that this would be unrealistic for both the employer and the employee.

This case provides a great example of new issues that could arise in the changing workplace. The COVID-19 pandemic rapidly accelerated an existing trend toward increased remote work. With working from home now routine for many workers, employers should be careful of potential legal risks of this new normal.

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