Beyond the Workplace: Duty of Care in the Face of COVID-19
In a pivotal ruling on July 6, 2023, the California Supreme Court delivered a significant decision in the case of Kuciemba v. Victory Woodworks, Inc., 2023 WL 4360826. The Court’s pronouncement that employers’ duty of care to their employees does not extend to the employees’ household members for take-home exposure to COVID-19 will have consequences for employer liability.
Below is an analysis of the Court’s rationale for its decision and implications of the ruling to help you stay informed on how this ruling could impact your rights and responsibilities as an employee or employer moving forward.
In the spring of 2020, a construction site in San Francisco became the center stage for the instant matter. Robert Kuciemba, employed by Victory Woodworks, Inc. (“Victory”), contracted COVID-19 at work and unknowingly passed it on to his wife, Corby Kuciemba. Faced with the devastating consequences of the virus, Corby promptly sued the company, raising a novel question about employer liability. The heart of the matter lies in “take-home COVID-19,” as Corby alleged negligence for her own exposure transmitted to her as a household member of an employee. The 9th Circuit tasked the California Supreme Court to weigh in on two critical certified questions:
- Does California’s Workers Compensation Act bar a spouse’s negligence claim against an employer when the employee contracts COVID-19 at work and brings home the virus?
- Does an employer owe a duty of care under California law to prevent the spread of COVID-19 to employees’ household members?
The Kuciemba Opinion
Duty of Care: In the pursuit of a definitive answer to the duty of care question, the Court employed a thorough approach, exploring two distinct paths. The first led an analysis of the well-established default statute rule found in Civil Code section 1714, a familiar ground in the realm of legal responsibility. However, the Court then applied the policy application nuances of the Rowland v. Christian (1968) 69 Cal. 2d 108, analysis, which, in some instances, provides exception to the Civil Code. The Court’s dual approach shed light on the considerations that led to its consequential conclusion.
Civil Code section 1714: The Court sought guidance from a precedent that cast light on the proper application of Civil Code section 1714 – Kesner v. Superior Court (2016) 1 Cal. 5th 1132. In Kesner, the plaintiff alleged that he contracted mesothelioma through exposure to asbestos brought home on the clothing of a family member working at the defendant company. The ruling in Kesner in favor of the plaintiff firmly established that employer’s duty of care to prevent “take-home” exposure to such hazardous substances. Acknowledging the similarities of Kesner, the Court in Kuciemba embarked on a compelling analysis of the complexities of the duty of care question at hand ultimately acknowledging that Section 1714 requires a finding of duty under the circumstances presented here.
Rowland Factors: Finding that Section 1714 establishes a general duty of care, with a few exceptions supported by policy considerations, the Court next turned to Rowland to examine potential foreseeability and policy exceptions to the general duty of care. Foreseeability focuses on the information available at the time of alleged negligence, while policy considerations are forward-looking and assess the potential burdens on defendants. The Court concluded that while the transmission of COVID-19 to household members of employees may be a foreseeable consequence of an employer’s failure to take proper precautions against the virus in the workplace, policy considerations require the adoption of an exception to the duty of care.
Here, though the Court reasoned that foreseeability alone is insufficient to create an independent tort duty, the Court considered policy factors, such as moral blame, prevention of future harm, burden on the defendant, and consequences to the community in reaching its decision.
The Court did not find any substantial support to implicate Victory for moral blame. Victory incurred no obvious financial gain by any failure to strictly adhere to government health orders. In fact, the Court suggested that the precautions taken by companies like Victory typically resulted in significant implementation cost. The Court acknowledged that policy consideration of preventing future harm would strongly favor compliance with health orders to halt the spread of COVID-19. However, as the Court acknowledged, employers’ ability to control the virus is limited. Mask-wearing and social distancing require cooperation from employees. Further, the Court recognized that imposing a tort duty on employers would cause a direct and pervasive negative impact on the economic outcomes for all businesses, leading to slowdowns or shutdowns caused by the weight of restrictions.
One of Victory’s key arguments relied on the third Rowland factor, which scrutinizes the burden on the defendant and the consequences to the community when imposing a duty of care. Convinced by this line of reasoning, the Court expressed the concern that an extension of the duty of care of an employer to non-employee household members of employees and the resulting consequences and detrimental changes in business practices risked potential harm to society. The Court acknowledged the insurmountable risk of COVID-19 infection, which cannot be entirely eliminated, and an extension of duty in such cases might compel essential service providers to close down during future pandemics. The Court also suggested a concern about the anticipated burden on the judicial system itself with ensuing litigation which, even with limiting liability to household members, could not appropriately alleviate this burden. The Court further commented that such a distinction would be arbitrary and would inappropriately exclude a significant portion of injured individuals.
The Kesner ruling provides for liability in limited circumstances for alleged workplace exposure to asbestos where the employers have significant control over the means and methods of work. The Court’s ruling at hand will have far-reaching implications for all workplaces, given the universal impact of COVID-19. Here, a ruling in favor of the plaintiffs would have significantly transformed nearly every California employer into a potential defendant, resulting in a surge of litigation and imposing substantial burdens on business, the judicial system, and the community. The Court here pragmatically ultimately prioritized policy factors and the overall impact on society and the community at large finding that these outweighed any general duty, foreseeability, or moral blame considerations.
For more information on the Court’s decision or how it could impact your business, please contact Helen Luetto.
Legal Intern Akif Khan contributed to this article.