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COVID-19: California Supreme Court Holds Employers Do Not Owe a Duty of Care to Employees’ Family Members

August 05, 2023

On July 6, 2023, the Supreme Court of California (“Court”) issued its long-awaited decision in Kuciemba v. Victory Woodworks, Inc. (Kuciemba), holding that the employer does not owe a duty of care to the employee’s family members stemming from an employee contracting COVID-19 and allegedly spreading it to the household.

The Case

The employee in Kuciemba contracted COVID-19 while working at a construction job site, and his spouse was subsequently infected with COVID and hospitalized. The spouse then sued the employer for negligence, negligence per se, and premises liability. The employee also filed a workers’ compensation claim due to his contraction of the virus. The district court granted the employer’s motion to dismiss holding that (1) the employee’s spouse contracted COVID through contact with the employee and was therefore barred by the Workers’ Compensation Act’s (WCA) exclusive remedy provisions, (2) claims arising out of indirect contact with infected surfaces were subject to dismissal for failure to plead a plausible claim; and (3) the employer’s duty to provide a safe workplace did not extend to nonemployees. Following the dismissal, plaintiff appealed, and the Supreme Court agreed to answer the questions below:

  • If an employee contracts COVID-19 at the workplace and brings the virus home to a spouse, does the California Workers’ Compensation Act (WCA; Labor Code Section 3200et seq.) bar the spouse’s negligent claim against the employer?
  • Does California law impose a duty of care on employers to prevent the spread of COVID-19 to their employees’ household members?

The court answered both questions with a “no” based on the following rationale.

Application of Workers’ Compensation Act (WCA) and Derivative Injury Rule

The Derivative Injury Rule (DIR) states that a family member’s civil claim for an injury derived from an employee’s workplace injury is generally barred by the exclusive remedy status of workers compensation. There are exceptions to the DIR where the family member can claim their own independent injury caused by the employer’s same negligent conduct. Here, because the spouse’s injury did not arise from the employee’s injuries, but rather her COVID injuries were distinct from the employee’s injuries, the court did not apply the DIR and held that the spouse’s negligence claim was not barred under the WCA.

The employer’s duty of care

The second prong of the Supreme Court decision centered around the duty of care an employer owes to an employee’s family. In California, under Civil Code § 1714(a), “everyone is responsible, not only for the result of his or her willful acts, but also for an injury occasioned to another by his or her want of ordinary care or skill in the management of his or her property or person, except so far as the latter has, willfully or by want of ordinary care, brought the injury upon himself or herself.” The Court stated that the general duty applies where the defendant has created a risk of harm or has made the plaintiff’s position worse. However, California case law has carved out an exception dependent in part on balancing public policy concerns. Although it was logically foreseeable for an infected worker to spread the disease to the rest of their family, the court reasoned that the court held that the dramatic expansion of liability that would arise from holding the defendant to that duty of care would open the flood gates of civil litigation. This has the potential to destroy business and curtail the delivery of essential public services. As such, based on the court public policy concern, the court held that no duty of care arose and therefore, the employer would not be liable for the spouse’s injuries arising from COVID-19.

Prospective Challenges for Employers

Although the court has held that there is no duty of care owed to the employee’s family that arises from an employee’s spread of COVID-19, there are still some challenges that an employer faces when these issues arise.

Violations of Statutes

Although the employer does not owe a duty of care to the employee’s household, the court did not rule regarding negligence based on a statutory violation. Therefore, the violation of a statute designed to protect a specific class could still result in liability for an employer.

Private vs Public Employers:

Another issue of concern for employers is the fact that this decision may potentially only apply to private entities. In its decision, the court held that the default duty rule in Civil Code 1714 is not applicable to public entities. Liability for public entities is determined via statute under Government Code section 835. Specifically, the court quoting City of Los Angeles v. Superior Court “. . .public entity liability under Government Code section 835 is not coextensive with private liability.” “For that reason, Civil code section 1714 was inapplicable.” As such, there may be a higher standard of care applicable to public entities.


This long-awaited decision was a welcomed by employers in California. Nevertheless, an employer may still be subject to civil liability which can be mitigated by implementing a robust Injury Illness Prevention Program, continuously following CDC and local ordinance regarding the spread of COVID-19, and provide adequate training, among other preventive measures. Please contact your Keenan account manager for more details.

Keenan is not a law firm and no opinion, suggestion, or recommendation of the firm or its employees shall constitute legal advice. Clients are advised to consult with their own attorney for a determination of their legal rights, responsibilities, and liabilities, including the interpretation of any statute or regulation, or its application to the clients’ business activities.