A federal court recently dismissed a lawsuit filed by an employee and his spouse seeking to hold his employer liable for both of them contracting COVID-19. The dismissal should bring comfort to employer anxiety over lawsuits by employees and their family members that seek damages for possibly bringing a COVID-19 infection home from the workplace due to alleged negligence by the employer.
The complaint was brought in United States District Court for the Northern District of California. As one of the first lawsuits based on this theory of liability, it alleged that the employee’s spouse contracted COVID-19 from the husband-employee, who brought it home following a COVID-19 outbreak at his workplace. They sought damages for their subsequent infection and hospitalization and alleged the employer was negligent in failing to provide a safe workspace, which caused both of their infections.
On May 10, 2021, the court dismissed the action with prejudice, meaning the plaintiffs cannot amend their pleadings to re-file in the future. The court dismissed the case for two main reasons, one relating to the applicable workers’ compensation law and the other relating to an employer’s duty of care to non-employees.
First, the court held the claims were barred by the state workers’ compensation law. California’s workers’ compensation law, like other states, provides that workers’ compensation is the exclusive remedy for an employer’s liability where an employee sustains an injury in the course of their employment. Because both the employee and his spouse’s claims hinge on the allegation that he contracted COVID-19 at the workplace, the only redress could be through filing a workers’ compensation claim—not a lawsuit for negligence.
The court also ruled that alternatively, with respect to the spouse, her claims could be dismissed for the additional reason that the employer’s duty to provide a safe workplace does not extend to non-employees like her, where she contracted the virus 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 COVID-19 from a company’s employee. Because the court dismissed the lawsuit at this early stage, the issue of causation—which is whether the plaintiffs could prove that they contracted COVID-19 from the employer’s workplace as opposed to somewhere else—was never analyzed.
Although the employer in this case was embroiled in six months of litigation to obtain this dismissal, employers should take comfort that the court’s ruling largely mirrors what legal commentators have been expecting the result of these types of lawsuits to be, which is that workers’ compensation laws are the exclusive remedy for an employee who sustains an injury on the job (like COVID-19). Employers must, however, still comply with federal, state, and local health and safety requirements, such as those promulgated by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration and related state agencies, by taking steps to ensure a safe working environment for employees to safeguard against lawsuits like this one.