Employers in California are not legally responsible for preventing the spread of COVID-19 from their employees to the employees’ family members, the California Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
Workers’ compensation laws in the state do not preclude such claims, the court found. But companies also cannot be held legally responsible for preventing such infections, it said, given the tremendous burden such a requirement would place — not just on the companies, but on the courts and on society as a whole.
That is true even in cases in which an individual company may have shown negligence by failing to adhere to established health and safety standards, the court said.
“In some cases, ‘the consequences of a negligent act must be limited in order to avoid an intolerable burden on society,’” Justice Carol Corrigan wrote in the court’s unanimous ruling, quoting from a prior decision. “This is such a case.”
The decision significantly undercuts a federal lawsuit brought by Corby Kuciemba, a Hercules, Calif., woman now in her late 60s who sued her husband Robert’s employer in late 2020 based on allegations that Robert caught the coronavirus at a San Francisco job site and then brought it home to her — resulting in her being hospitalized for weeks.
The ruling was a major win for Victory Woodworks Inc., Robert Kuciemba’s Nevada-based employer, but also for other major employers and business organizations across the state, which had warned that a court ruling in the Kuciembas’ favor would have unleashed an unmanageable flow of COVID-19 claims against employers.
“This potential avalanche of lawsuits would cripple California businesses and likely force many to close their doors or leave the state,” the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups had argued in a joint filing in the case.
The ruling from California’s high court came after the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals asked it to weigh in on whether state law allowed for such claims or held companies responsible for preventing COVID-19 infections among employees’ family members. Federal courts pose questions to state high courts when they believe state law relevant to a case before them is unclear.
Corby Kuciemba, reached by phone Thursday, declined to comment on the case. She said she recovered from her illness.
Martin Zurada, one of the Kuciembas’ attorneys, said they were disappointed in the ruling but thanked the California justices “for their time and consideration.”
William Bogdan, an attorney for Victory Woodworks, said the company was pleased with the decision.
“They are of course sympathetic to anybody who claims that they got sick, but they recognize, as the Supreme Court recognized, that to have businesses be responsible for a disease that’s everywhere would cripple them,” Bogdan said.
Robert Dunn, an attorney for the U.S. Chamber and other business organizations, said the ruling was a huge win for California businesses.
“Employers in California can breathe a huge sigh of relief, because if the court had greenlighted these sorts of claims, every single employer in the state was a potential target, and there would be millions of potential plaintiffs,” Dunn said.
Dunn said it was notable that all seven justices of the California court, “which is not known as a business-friendly court most often,” had agreed that holding companies responsible for COVID-19 infections among their employees’ family members “would be a bridge too far.”
The Kuciembas had originally filed their lawsuit in state court in San Francisco in late 2020, but it was later moved to federal district court. In May 2021, U.S. District Judge Maxine Chesney dismissed the case, finding that Victory Woodwork’s “duty to provide a safe workplace to its employees does not extend to nonemployees who, like Corby Kuciemba, contract a viral infection away from those premises.”
The 9th Circuit took the case on appeal before posing its questions to the California high court. The state court’s answers will now help inform the 9th Circuit’s decision in the case — and bolster the chances of another dismissal.
“The 9th circuit has no choice but to adopt what the California Supreme Court has decided, and the California Supreme Court has decided that the employer owes no duty to the household, so that should dispose of the claim,” Bogdan said.
Corby Kuciemba was hospitalized for weeks in July and August 2020, before COVID-19 vaccines were available, according to the couple’s complaint.
She said she contracted the virus from her husband after he became infected with it while at a job site. She alleged that Victory Woodworks had been aware of workers falling ill with COVID-19 at another work site in California, but had nonetheless transferred workers from that site to the San Francisco site, where they worked close to her husband.
Many California businesses were shut down under strict COVID-19 rules at the time, but construction companies were among those businesses considered essential and allowed to continue operating. Many other companies also remained open, including those in the food service sector, and there are no enforced business closures in effect now — although COVID-19 continues to circulate.
Throughout the court’s decision Thursday, Corrigan seemed hyper-aware of the massive implications were the court to find that companies are responsible for preventing COVID-19 infections not just among their employees, but among their employees’ family members.
“In addition to dire financial consequences for employers, and a possibly broader social impact, the potential litigation explosion facilitated by a duty to prevent COVID-19 infections in household members would place significant burdens on the judicial system and, ultimately, the community,” Corrigan wrote.
Her concern for the courts, she wrote, was based in part on how difficult it would be to adjudicate how each individual plaintiff actually became infected, and to what extent the actions — or inaction — of their family member’s employer might have factored into that infection.
“Courts would have to manage a very large number of suits, and variations in individual exposure history and precautions against the virus would likely make it difficult, if not impossible, for the cases to be grouped into collective or class actions,” Corrigan wrote. “Fact-specific disputes could also make these cases complex and time-consuming to litigate.”
Bogdan and Dunn agreed.
“The court recognized that the proof problems, and the amount of litigation that would be required before a court could even consider whether to dismiss a case, would bring the business of the courts to a crawl,” Bogdan said.
Dunn said an alternative ruling by the court would have been a “massive boon” to lawyers of employees looking to “shake down employers,” but a disaster for everyone else.