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A federal judge in California reportedly dismissed the claims of a construction worker’s wife who said she contracted COVID-19 after her husband was exposed to it at work. The wife’s claim was novel in that it alleged her husband’s employer owed her, a nonemployee, a duty to keep her safe from COVID-19. Corby Kuciemba had sought damages in excess of $75,000 for medical expenses for at least one hospital stay, lost wages, lost earning capacity, pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment of life, and emotional distress.
Kuciemba filed a lawsuit against her husband’s employer, Victory Woodworks, alleging that the company knew that another employee had tested positive for COVID-19 but instead of requiring them to quarantine, the employee was assigned to work with her husband on a San Francisco jobsite.
U.S. District Judge Maxine Chesney denied Kuciemba’s claims, instead ruling that the allegation that she contracted COVID-19 through direct contact with her husband was barred by California workers’ compensation law. Judge Chesney ruled that the claim that she was exposed “indirectly through fomites such as [her husband’s] clothing” was not plausible, and that Victory’s “duty to provide a safe workplace to its employees does not extend to nonemployees who, like Corby Kuciemba, contract a viral infection away from those premises.”
The decision could be used as an example for other courts that are dealing with the same types of lawsuits or put in the position of deciding liability in states with workers’ compensation laws similar to those in California. Other COVID-19-related regulations have started to work their way through the industry as well, with some states having taken up the issue of whether businesses are liable for COVID-19-related injuries or passings, and whether they constitute wrongful death or not.
Originally, the Kuciembas argued that Mrs. Kuciemba had a separate and distinct claim that was not derivative of Mr. Kuciemba’s claim, and therefore not barred by California’s Workers’ Compensation Statutes. They reportedly cited a case in which a California court found that an employee’s child had a distinct claim from the employee because she was exposed to toxic levels of carbon monoxide present at the worksite while still in utero. The Kuciembas argued that Mrs. Kuciemba had an analogous claim based on “direct contact” with her husband, but the court twice rejected this argument. The court ordered that, if Mrs. Kuciemba has any claim as to COVID-19 she contracted from her husband; her exclusive remedy is under the Workers’ Compensation Statutes.
She was never present at Victory’s facility and allegedly only contracted COVID-19 due to her interactions with her husband. However, they attempted to draw a parallel to Take-Home Liability for hazardous asbestos exposure. The Kuciembas asserted that the asbestos precedent could be applied to COVID-19 with the virus transferring in the same way as asbestos fibers.