See's Candies COVID-19 Appellate Ruling Explained - It's mostly about Workers' Compensation
It's hard not to think of See's Candies ("See's") during the holidays. Is anyone able to count the number of times they've received one of those boxes of assorted goodies as a gift (or how many times they've given them out for that matter)?
However, this past holiday season, See's is sticking out in my mind due to the recent California appellate court ruling that came out close to Christmas. (See's Candies v. Superior Court (2021).) Unfortunately, this one involved an employee whose spouse passed away, allegedly due to the employee transmitting COVID from work to their spouse. The employee and her daughters ("plaintiffs") then brought a civil lawsuit against employer See's ("defendant"), alleging wrongful death of the spouse/father ("decedent").
Up for appellate ruling was whether See's could get this lawsuit automatically dismissed ("demurrer") at the trial level. The appellate court ultimately held that See's would not be able to dismiss this lawsuit, and therefore allowed the plaintiff family to move forward with the wrongful death lawsuit.
I've received and seen questions about this on various HR boards, and the news headlines out there could be misleading for some, in my opinion. So, I thought it would be helpful to boil things down for practical purposes.
A Quick Primer on Workers' Comp Law
I think a little bit on Workers' Comp could help set the stage here. As many HR professionals know, Workers' Comp generally bars employees from bringing a civil lawsuit for work-related injuries; this limitation could also pertain to family injuries that are "derivative" of the employee's injury (including, but not limited to, loss of companionship and emotional distress).
In this case, See's Candies was arguing that the husband's passing was essentially work-related and therefore prohibited from being litigated in a civil court of law due to Workers' Comp. As we see below, the appellate court did not agree with this.
See's Candy / COVID-19 Ruling - What it Means
The See's Candies ruling held that the unfortunate death of the spouse/father was not covered by Workers' Compensation, and therefore the lawsuit could not be dismissed. Specifically, See's was unsuccessful at arguing that the spouse's/father's passing was "derivative" of the employee-wife's own work-related injury covered under Workers' Comp (i.e. her assumed COVID contraction). At the end of the day, what this really means is that See's Candies will have to continue defending against the civil wrongful death lawsuit at the trial court level.
To be precise, the ruling here does not mean that employers are automatically liable for COVID-related injuries involving an employee's family member. In fact, toward the end of the court's opinion was an acknowledgement that the trial court would still need to establish whether employers owe a duty of care to employee family members in a situation like this.
The appellate court was also unmoved by See's and its supporters (amici curiae) who had submitted their own legal briefs in support of the candy company. As See's and amici argued, allowing this lawsuit to go forward would open the floodgates to exponential liability claims and lawsuits from employees and their families, thereby unreasonably flooding the court systems. However, the court responded that it's up to the legislative branch of California's government to create laws that could help address those concerns.
Practical Takeaway for Employers
Employers would benefit from ensuring their COVID-19 practices are up to date with the latest orders and regulations. Though the See's case does not necessarily "create more liability" for employers, businesses should still tread carefully so they can avoid such legal disputes from coming up generally.
The time and costs relating to negotiating, defending, mediating, or arbitrating a legal dispute could be draining, and mishandling such claims could result in a financial mess. Additionally, there are reputational risks if an employer is rumored to be negligent about their COVID-19 duties, which could lead to staffing challenges, investigations, and licensing issues.