A federal court recently dismissed a lawsuit filed by an employee and his spouse attempting to hold his employer liable for both of them contracting COVID-19. The dismissal should bring comfort to employer anxiety over negligence lawsuits by employees and their family members seeking damages for possibly bringing a coronavirus infection home from the workplace.
Virus Hospitalizes Employee, Wife
The complaint was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. As one of the first lawsuits of its kind, it alleged the employee’s spouse contracted COVID-19 from the husband-employee, who had brought it home after a coronavirus outbreak at work. They sought damages for their subsequent infection and hospitalization and alleged the employer was negligent in failing to provide a safe workspace, which allegedly caused both infections.
On May 10, 2021, the court dismissed the case with prejudice, meaning the couple may not amend their pleadings to refile it in the future. The court dismissed the matter for two main reasons, one relating to the applicable workers’ compensation law and the other pertaining to an employer’s duty of care to nonemployees.
Workers’ comp/exclusive remedy. First, the court held the couple’s claims were barred by the state workers’ comp law. California’s law, like those in other states, provides workers’ comp is the exclusive remedy for an employer’s liability when an employee sustains an injury in the course of his employment.
The employee and his spouse’s claims hinged on the allegation he contracted COVID-19 at the workplace. Therefore, their only redress could be through filing a workers’ comp claim, not a lawsuit for negligence.
Duty to provide safe workplace. The court also ruled the spouse’s claims could be dismissed for the additional reason that the employer’s duty to provide a safe workplace doesn’t extend to nonemployees. After all, she contracted COVID-19 off the employer’s premises. In its filings, the employer had argued that holding otherwise could cause a slippery slope of subjecting an entity to liability to any member of the public who subsequently contracts the coronavirus from a company’s employee.
Because the court dismissed the lawsuit at an early stage, the issue of causation (i.e., whether the couple could prove they contracted COVID-19 from the employer’s workplace as opposed to somewhere else) was never analyzed.
The employer in the California case was embroiled in six months of litigation to obtain the dismissal, but you should take comfort in knowing the court’s ruling largely mirrors what legal commentators have been expecting the result to be. That is, workers’ comp laws are the exclusive remedy for an employee who sustains an injury (such as COVID-19) on the job.
Nevertheless, you must still comply with federal, state, and local health and safety requirements like the ones promulgated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and related state agencies. Take steps to ensure a safe working environment for your employees to guard against negligence lawsuits like this one.