One year into the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. courts are wrestling with a growing number of new legal theories related to COVID-19. Not surprisingly, California – the most populous state with some of the most employee friendly laws and courts – leads the way with the most COVID-19 employment lawsuits filed. See Jackson Lewis COVID-19 Employment Litwatch. Nonetheless, a Northern District of California decision, dismissing an attempt by an employee and his wife to hold an employer liable for COVID-19-related injuries, provides employers with some welcome relief.
In Kuciemba v. Victory Woodworks Inc., husband and wife Robert and Corby Kuciemba alleged that Robert worked at a construction site in San Francisco and that, in July 2020, Robert’s employer transferred employees from the company’s Mountain View, California job site to the San Francisco site, despite knowing the transferred employees had likely been exposed to COVID-19 in Mountain View. No. 3:20-cv-09355-MMC (N.D. Cal. Feb. 22, 2021). Once in San Francisco, the transferred employees allegedly worked closely with Robert, without adequate safety precautions being put in place. Soon thereafter, both Robert and Corby tested positive for COVID-19 and were hospitalized. Corby, a high-risk individual, was hospitalized for an extended period.
The Kuciembas sued Robert’s employer in state court, alleging claims for negligence and violation of public nuisance laws (that resulted in Corby contracting COVID-19), and loss of consortium (suffered by Robert because of Corby becoming sick). All of these claims were rooted in the assertion that the employer knew or should have known that the transferred employees had been exposed to COVID-19, and that the employer failed to follow local and federal guidelines and orders for maintaining a safe workplace.
The employer successfully removed the case to federal court on diversity jurisdiction grounds (because the company is based in Nevada), and then moved to dismiss all claims. On February 22, 2021, the district court dismissed the case, without prejudice. First, the court ruled that Corby’s public nuisance claim failed for lack of standing. Next, the court ruled that Corby’s various negligence claims, as well as Robert’s loss of consortium claim, were all barred by California workers’ compensation provisions, which provide the sole and exclusive remedy for the employee and the employee’s dependents. See Cal. Labor Code §§ 3600, 3602.
The court’s ruling is gratifying for management-side defense attorneys who have been arguing that states’ workers compensation laws preempt most allegations of COVID-19-related injuries or damages resulting from exposure to the virus in the workplace. The combination of worker’s compensation protections (which here extended to the spouse) and the myriad of states that have passed various forms of immunity for COVID claims – including, but not limited to, Georgia, Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, and South Carolina – provide employers with their own form of vaccine to the onslaught of litigation created by COVID-19.
Many COVID-19 employment lawsuits raise novel legal issues, so it is important for employers to monitor COVID-19 employment litigation trends. Fortunately, Jackson Lewis has a dedicated team tracking and responding to these developing issues. Please contact Jackson Lewis if you have questions or need assistance regarding any COVID-19 workplace concerns.