California Court Allows Covid-19 Claim of Non-Employee Catching Virus from Employee to Move Forward

Just before Christmas, a California appeals court gave the green light to a wrongful death lawsuit claiming that an employee brought Covid-19 home from work and infected a family member, who subsequently died.

The employer, See’s Candy, had asked the courts to shut the case down because the claim falls under the exclusive remedy of the California Workers’ Compensation Act (WCA). Under the WCA, employees who suffer illness from the workplace are entitled to compensation without needing to sue the employer in court. Since early in the Covid-19 pandemic, it has been clear that employees who link their own Covid-19 infection to their job get WCA benefits.

The courts refused to dismiss the case, reasoning that WCA benefits do not extend to injuries or illness by non-employees, and so they are not prohibited from pursuing the employer in civil court.

Importantly, the family still faces several hurdles, including establishing that the employer owed a “duty of care”* to the employee’s relative (a question not answered in the See’s Candy opinion), that the employer breached such a “duty of care,” and, perhaps most difficult, that the employer was the source of the deceased relative’s infection.

Employers’ best takeaway from this case is to ensure your practices align with all state and federal government and OSHA mandates (such as those discussed above). This will not only reduce the spread of infection, but may be valuable evidence, if you are confronted with such a case, to prove you did not act unreasonably.

*Deepest apologies for the unavoidable legalese.


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