Last week, the California Supreme Court responded to a request from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to clarify whether an employer can be sued for negligence based on an employee who contracts COVID-19 at work and later spreads the virus to members of his or her household. While finding a legal basis for such claims under California law, the court concluded that such actions are prohibited due to public policy concerns over the flood of litigation and business disruptions that would result from such claims.
The case before the court involved a construction worker who alleged that his employer transferred new workers who had been exposed to COVID-19 to his worksite in violation of a county health order. He claimed that he contracted the disease from those co-workers and later spread it to his spouse who became seriously ill. He and his spouse sued the employer for the resulting personal injury.
The California Supreme Court rejected most of the employer’s defenses to the claim. It concluded that the suit was not preempted by workers’ compensation statutes. The court also held that the employer potentially has a duty of care to employees’ families and others. However, the court concluded that policy reasons create an exception to this general duty of care. If faced with potential claims from third parties who come into contact with employees, companies providing essential services may choose to shut down in the event of another pandemic. These claims would place an intolerable burden on both society and the court system.
California’s rejection of third party infection liability makes it unlikely that other states will recognize such claims. If the plaintiffs were unable to convince the very pro-labor state court to allow negligence lawsuits, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario where other states would take a different view on these issues.