Companies Are Not Liable for Spouses of Employees that Contract COVID-19 at Work and Transmit Virus to Family Household

By editor on July 19, 2023

The California Supreme Court’s decision in Kuciemba v. Victory Woodworks, Inc.  focused on the issue of what claims, if any, an employee’s spouse has against a company if the employee contracts COVID-19 in the workplace. The two questions in this matter before the Court were as follows: First, if an employee contracts COVID-19 at the workplace and brings home the virus to a spouse, does the California Workers’ Compensation Act (“WCA”) bar the spouse’s negligence claim against the employer? Secondly, does an employer owe a duty of care under California law to prevent the spread of COVID-19 to their employees’ household members?

The matter was before the California Supreme Court on appeal from the lower court’s dismissal of the complaint. The facts alleged involved plaintiff Robert Kuciemba, an employee of defendant Victory Woodworks, Inc., who became infected with COVID-19 while working at a construction site in San Francisco. Robert alleged that he was required to work in close contact with workers at the site and subsequently carried the virus home and transmitted it to his wife, Corby Kuciemba, also a named plaintiff in this action. Corby was hospitalized for several weeks and, at one point, was kept alive on a respirator. The Kuciembas sued Victory in superior court, to which Victory removed the case to federal court.

The lower court dismissed the Kuciembas claims against Victory, concluding that Corby’s claim against Victory was barred by the WCA, that her claim that she had contracted COVID-19 through indirect contact with infected surfaces was subject to dismissal for failure to plead a plausible claim, and that Victory’s duty to provide a safe workplace did not extend to nonemployees such as Corby.

With regard to whether the WCA bars Corby’s claim against Victory, the California Supreme Court found that it did not. The Court held that the WCA’s exclusive remedy provisions do not bar a non-employee’s recovery for injuries that are not legally dependent upon an injury suffered by its employee. However, regarding whether there is a potential duty of care owed by the company to an employee’s spouse, the Court would ultimately find that the answer to that question was also no.

California Civil Code section 1714 creates a general duty of care as a matter of public policy, which is to say that a company would be liable for its own actions, whether intentional or negligent. Here, the analysis turns on whether the situation at hand – a company’s liability to an employee’s family when said employee transmits COVID-19 to the household – warrants an exception to the general rule of Section 1714.

The Court weighed the foreseeability factors pertaining to an employee contracting COVID-19 at work and transmitting the virus to the household and even went so for as to state that the policy factor of moral blame largely tilted in favor of finding a duty of care. However, the Court ultimately found that a duty of care by an employer to an employee’s spouse to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace would impose an intolerable burden on employers and society in contravention of public policy: “In assessing duty, however, we do not merely count up the factors on either side…Some factors may be so weighty as to tip the balance one way or the other. Here, the significant and unpredictable burden that recognizing a duty of care would impose of California businesses, the court system, and the community at large counsels in favor of an exception to the general rule.”

A copy of the case may be found here:

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