A California federal court has dismissed a lawsuit filed by the wife of a construction worker who claimed her husband contracted COVID-19 at work and brought the virus home infecting her as well. The court held workers’ compensation exclusivity barred the wife’s claim. Although the court granted plaintiff leave to amend, the attorney for the husband’s employer does not believe the wife will be able to allege facts sufficient to overcome the legal principles informing the court’s ruling. The case is Kuciemba et. al. v. Victory Woodworks, Inc. and is currently pending in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.
Plaintiff Corby Kuciemba (age 65) sued her husband’s employer Victory Woodworks, Inc. (“Victory”) claiming she contracted COVID-19 from her husband who contracted the virus at work. The Complaint alleged Victory knew or should have known its employees at a construction site in Mountain View, California had been potentially exposed to the virus but did not require quarantine in violation of local health orders. The Complaint alleged Robert Kuciemba was forced to work with at least one worker who had been exposed. Mr. and Mrs. Kuciemba tested positive for the virus on July 16, 2020 and were hospitalized for several weeks of treatment. Mr. Kuciemba filed a workers’ compensation claim against his employer and was receiving benefits.
Victory filed a motion to dismiss, arguing workers’ compensation exclusivity barred the wife’s civil claim. Victory further argued an employer does not owe a duty to every off-site person who claims an employee transmitted an infection, be it the flu or COVID-19. Victory’s motion averred it was speculative to contend the only place the Kuciembas could have contracted the virus was at Mr. Kuciemba’s place of employment. For example, within walking distance of their home was a Rite Aid, Big Lots, Post Office, McDonalds, Home Depot, and a Lucky’s Supermarket. Thus, Mr. Kuciemba, who worked eight hours a day, could have been exposed at one of these places or any other place he may have visited.
In granting Victory’s motion to dismiss, the court held because Mrs. Kuciemba’s injury was dependent entirely on her husband’s work-related infection, worker’s compensation is the only remedy. California Labor Code § 3600 sets forth the conditions for compensation for employees who sustain an injury arising out of and during the course of employment. The statute provides what is essentially known as the workers’ compensation bargain: the employer is strictly liable for workers’ compensation benefits “without regard to negligence,” and in exchange the employer shall not be liable “whatsoever to any person” unless one of the exceptions to the exclusive remedy applies.
California Labor Code Section 3602 provides where a worker sustains an injury arising during the course of employment, the right to recover compensation is the “sole and exclusive remedy of the employee or his or her dependents against the employer” except: (1) where the injury is caused by a willful physical assault by the employer; (2) where the injury is aggravated by the employer’s fraudulent concealment of the existence of the injury and its connection with the employment; and (3) where the injury is caused by a defective product manufactured, sold, or leased to a third party and the product is provided by the third party for the employee’s use. California Labor Code Section 3706 provides an exception where the employer fails to secure workers’ compensation insurance and California Labor Code Section 4558 provides the “power press” exception, which applies when the employer fails to install or remove protective guards from a power press machine.
Because Mrs. Kuciemba’s situation did not fall within one of the exceptions, the court agreed with Victory and found the operation of the workers’ compensation exclusive remedy statute barred her claim. Even assuming the exclusive remedy did not apply, Mrs. Kuciemba faced a significant hurdle in trying to prove causation, i.e., Victory was responsible for her husband infection at work and she, in turn, was infected by her husband. The impact of the court’s ruling leaves Mrs. Kuciemba without remedy as she does not independently qualify for workers’ compensation benefits and does not have standing to bring a civil suit against her husband’s employer. The court also dismissed Mrs. Kuciemba’s public nuisance claim against Victory on the grounds she lacked standing to sue under San Francisco’s health orders, which do not provide a private right of action.
Although the Kuciemba case is not yet binding precedent, the court’s decision to dismiss the lawsuit is a victory for California employers and their insurers. Victory’s counsel commented that plaintiffs are asking employers to keep COVID-19 from invading the home when the global public health system and pharmaceutical industry failed to do so and requiring private industry to meet that standard sets the bar too high. Claims examiners and defense attorneys should be on alert for similar claims and file the appropriate dispositive motions.