Family of man who died of COVID after his wife’s work exposure may sue company, court rules

The family of a man who died of COVID-19 whom he caught from his wife, who was exposed at work, can sue his employer for damages, a state appeals court ruled on Tuesday, saying that household members are not bound by the limits imposed on employees by the California Workers’ Compensation Act.

Workers’ compensation reimburses employees and their dependents for financial losses caused by injuries or illnesses they have suffered on the job, but does not include damages for pain and suffering or emotional distress caused by the loss of a loved one. In Tuesday’s case, the Los Angeles Second District Court of Appeals said an employer whose negligence injures or kills an employee can be sued by family members for any harm suffered.

“When a person suffers a crippling or fatal injury, the harm they suffer necessarily extends beyond the injured person to those who love and / or depend on that person,” said Justice Helen Bendix. in the 3-0 decision. This was apparently the first ruling by a California appeals court on an employer’s liability for the coronavirus that a worker passed on to family members.

Matilda Ek worked at a See’s Candy packaging plant in Los Angeles County and said in her costume that the company crammed workers next to each other, including some who were coughing and sneezing, after the start of the pandemic. She fell ill in March 2020 and was treated at home by her husband, Martin Ek, and one of their daughters, both of whom were diagnosed with COVID weeks later, according to the lawsuit. Martin Ek died in April 2020.

See’s, supported by documents filed by state and national trading organizations, sought to dismiss the lawsuit. The company argued that under the Workers ‘Compensation Act, it was only liable for compensation for workers’ accidents or illnesses suffered by its employees on the job, and not for damage caused. to others, even if they have been infected by an employee.

The appeals court disagreed, upholding a Superior Court judge’s refusal to dismiss the case. The court said workers’ compensation, which does not require proof of negligence, only applies to losses suffered by the injured worker and any resulting financial harm to family members. Non-employees who sustain their own injuries as a result of the alleged employer misconduct can sue for damages, including the wrongful death of a parent, the court said.

If the court accepts the company’s argument, Bendix observed in the ruling, it should protect employers from damages claims from bus passengers infected by an employee who unknowingly contracted an illness at work.

She cited the 1997 state Supreme Court ruling allowing a lawsuit against an employer by a child who suffered pre-birth brain damage when her pregnant mother was exposed to carbon monoxide from a machine. polish faulty floors at work. In a 2016 case, the state’s High Court said that when employees came home from work with asbestos dust on their clothes and family members later developed cancer, the employer could be sued for damages.

In May, U.S. District Judge Maxine Chesney of San Francisco dismissed a similar lawsuit brought by a San Francisco woman who said she was hospitalized with COVID-19 that her husband, a construction worker, caught in job. But the appeals court said the ruling was not binding on state courts and did not state the reasons for the dismissal.

There was no immediate comment from See’s Candy lawyers, who may appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court. Lawyers for the family could not be reached for comment.

Bob Egelko is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @BobEgelko

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