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Employer Not Responsible for Virus Spread to Employee's Family, Says Supreme Court of California

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other businesses also said that these cases and lawsuits can successfully "cripple the businesses in California."
UPDATED JUL 19, 2023
Cover Image Source: Pexels | Andrea Piacquadio
Cover Image Source: Pexels | Andrea Piacquadio

The Supreme Court of California recently ruled that employers are not responsible for any virus that has been caught in the workplace and later spread to a family member of an employee. A woman from California claimed that she was infected with COVID-19 after her husband contracted the virus at the San Francisco construction worksite back in 2020. The woman later sued the company for their negligence on the work premises. An attorney with Hinshaw and Culbertson in San Francisco who represented the company said that the employer does not owe a duty of care under California law to prevent the spread of COVID-19 to employees' household members, per Coventus Law.

Pexels | Sora Shimazaki
Image Source: Sora Shimazaki/Pexels

This is true even if the company showed signs of negligence by failing to stick to the health and safety guidelines. “In some cases, ‘the consequences of a negligent act must be limited to avoid an intolerable burden on society,’” Justice Carol Corrigan wrote in the ruling. The ruling is also applicable to other diseases like flu, RSV, and more. If the companies were held liable for these infections, it could potentially shut down businesses and "overwhelm the courts in trying to parse out who had a valid claim and who didn't," he said. This ruling came as a win for not only Victory Woodworks Inc. but for all the major employers and businesses. 

Pexels |  Vanessa Garcia
Image Source: Vanessa Garcia/Pexels 

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other businesses also said that these cases and lawsuits can successfully "cripple the businesses in California," as per LA Times. The court warned that imposing such duties on the company toward the household members of the employees could lead to an excessive burden on the judicial system. Having said that, the court asked the workplaces to be cautious about spreading communicable diseases.

Corby Kuciemba, the wife of the employee who sued the company, has refused to comment on the court's ruling as of now. However, her attorney, Martin Zurada said that they were disappointed with the court's ruling but thanked the "justices for their time and consideration."

The pandemic led many employees to file workplace lawsuits in state and federal courts, as per  Chicago-based law firm Seyfarth Shaw. Out of the 1000 cases, more than 200 were related to workplace safety where the workers claimed that the businesses didn't take proper measures or invest in hygiene products. The general duty clause of the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act of 1970 requires that employers provide a work environment "free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm," per SHRM.

Pexels | Anna Shvets
Image Source: Anna Shvets/Pexels 

In 2020, OSHA issued citations that resulted in more than 250 inspections and $3.8 million worth of penalties. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration needs workplaces to establish an environment that will be free from any recognized hazards that may cause serious physical harm or even death. "Employers in high-hazard industries, those with employees working with asbestos or toxic chemicals, may remain especially vulnerable to third-party claims," said Lori Ocheltree, a San Francisco attorney, per SHRM. 

Personal Injury Lawsuits: Businesses need to create a safe and healthy environment for their workers and failing to adhere to the guidelines can result in these lawsuits.

Negligent Security Issues: A business is legally responsible for creating an environment that doesn't promote the transmission of viruses or other communicable diseases, steps to avoid a mishap may include crowd controlling and other such actions.

It's important to make sure that no contract was breached because of COVID-19, so companies need to continually revise policies. A great example would be flight refunds that were not smoothly received by passengers after their flights got canceled due to the pandemic.