Employers cannot be held legally or financially responsible for preventing the spread of COVID-19 from their employees to their household members, the California Supreme Court has ruled.

In a decision that could shape rulings in other states, the California court advised the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that, under California law, employers do not have a duty of care for non-employees regarding off-site COVID exposure. The court found the disease had become so ubiquitous that allowing lawsuits for relatives of all sickened workers would overwhelm both the economy and the courts.

The July 6 ruling is of special importance to healthcare workers and those in skilled nursing in particular. More than 1.6 million nursing home workers had been diagnosed with COVID through June 25, the latest date for which Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services data was available.

“Although it is foreseeable that an employer’s negligence in permitting workplace spread of COVID-19 will cause members of employees’ households to contract the disease, recognizing a duty of care to nonemployees in this context would impose an intolerable burden on employers and society in contravention of public policy,” Justice Carol A. Corrigan wrote in a 53-page opinion. “These and other policy considerations lead us to conclude that employers do not owe a tort-based duty to nonemployees to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

Businesses from coast to coast had asked the California high court to reject the principles on which Corby Kuciemba and her husband, Robert, sued the furniture maker where he worked. Corby Kuciemba spent a month hospitalized and on a respirator fighting off the COVID infection she got from her husband, who claims he got sick at work.

According to the Kuciembas, Victory Woodworks knowingly transferred workers from an infected construction site to a different jobsite without following the safety procedures required by a state health order. Robert Kuciemba worked in close contact with those employees and soon developed COVID.

“The state, in this situation, had declared construction was an essential industry and needed to continue during the shutdown,” attorney Willam Bogdan of Hinshaw & Culbertson told McKnight’s Long-Term Care News Friday. “And if those essential industries had to close their productions or go out of business because of the cost of complying with perfection, which is what plaintiffs were looking for, that would defeat the purpose of declaring them essential businesses. … Every employer in CA would have been subject to these suits.”

The court also “recognized that you can’t hold the employer responsible for how employees behave at work, how employees and family members behave outside of work or whether employees are being forthright as to whether they were exposed or who exposed them,” said Bogdan, who represented Victory in the case.

Even with extraordinary precautions, it would be impossible to pinpoint exactly when an employee contracted COVID and if or when they passed to a family member, he added.

Some claims still valid

In their ruling, the California justices referenced other cases in which a “take-home” claim was valid. For instance, a nurse who contracted Hepatitis B from a patient and then passed it onto a spouse could pursue litigation. And the California judiciary had previously ruled that an employee bringing home toxins from work, such as the asbestos addressed in a 2016 case, could open employers’ to liability.

In such cases with a limited number of exposures and defendants, claims will still be permitted, Bogdan noted.

“This ruling does not change that,” he said. “But here, COVID was everywhere. There were millions of places that people could have been exposed to it. There was no way to limit it just to the workplace, and even when you do limit it to the workplace, there’s no RNA testing you can do to prove that the droplet I inhaled at home was a droplet that came from the job site.”

Though the ruling technically only covers California employers, Bogdan expects it will set informal precedent elsewhere.

“California is a leader in tort litigation, and a lot of states follow their lead,” he said.

Similar cases in four other states also had been torpedoed by respective court findings that there were no causes of action. Those rulings were non-binding beyond state lines, but the logic still works, Bogdan said.

“What you will find is, in other states, if people try to file these cases, unless their law is radically different than California’s, this logic will apply, even though the law doesn’t,” he said.