In a unanimous opinion, the California Supreme Court answered two questions posed to it by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal, finding that an employer is not liable for a COVID-19 injury sustained by an employee’s household member, even if that household member contracted COVID-19 because of the employer’s negligence, and that the household member’s negligence claim is not barred by the exclusive remedy doctrine.
The Court held that while the workers’ compensation exclusive remedy doctrine does not bar a household member’s negligence claim against the employer, the employer does not owe a duty of care to the employee’s household member. The Court opined that, while it was foreseeable that an employer’s negligence would cause members of employees’ households to contract COVID-19, “recognizing a duty of care to nonemployees in this context would impose an intolerable burden on employers and society in contravention of public policy.” The decision means that the employer is not liable to the household member in a negligence action because a duty of care to the claimant is a necessary element of a negligence claim.
The exclusive remedy discussion highlights that the workers’ compensation laws do not bar a household member’s recovery for injuries that are not “legally or logically dependent” upon an injury sustained by the employee. In keeping with its prior precedents, the Supreme Court held there must be more than a “but for” connection between the employee’s injury and the third party’s negligence claim. In this case, the injury sustained by the household member was found to be independent of the injury suffered by the employee, because the negligence action was based on the direct damages to the household member, and was not dependent upon the damages or injury to the employee.
While such third party claims are not categorically barred against employers, the finding regarding “duty of care” means employers can breathe a sigh of relief, as the Supreme Court has slammed the door shut on third party negligence actions arising out of their employees’ COVID-19 exposure claims.