COVID-19 has been the cause of a global health emergency for more than a year now, but courts are only now beginning to answer key liability questions relating to the pandemic.  In a decision has the potential to impact litigation throughout the country, Judge Maxine M. Chesney of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California dismissed legal claims brought by a woman against her husband’s employer after he allegedly contracted COVID-19 from the workplace and then gave it to her.

In Kuciemba v. Victory Woodworks, Inc., the plaintiff-wife brought suit against her husband’s employer asserting claims for negligence and public nuisance.  However, in an order issued on February 22, 2021, the court dismissed the negligence claims on the grounds that claims for workplace COVID-19 exposure are barred under applicable California workers’ compensation laws, which provide the exclusive means of recovery for workplace injuries.  The court also dismissed the public nuisance claims for lack of standing.  Although the court granted the plaintiff-wife the opportunity to amend her complaint, it is unclear whether any possible amendment will allow her to defeat a future motion to dismiss.

While the recent ruling in Kuciemba was based on an application of California law, the outcome is not necessarily confined to the Golden State.  Like California, every state has enacted an exclusivity law which requires that workplace negligence claims must be brought under the state’s worker’s compensation laws.  This case, and similar cases, are likely to be litigated in courts throughout the United States for years to come.