California Employers Likely Immune To Employee COVID-19 Lawsuits, But More Susceptible To COVID-19 Workers-Compensation Claims

Recent news reports, like this one from the Los Angeles Times, indicate that Congress is hotly debating a proposed law to immunize employers from lawsuits alleging that their workers contracted COVID-19 illness on the job.  While business owners in California may suffer headaches or congestion from other types of lawsuits related to COVID-19 in the workplace, exposure to employee lawsuits of this kind is probably not a feverish worry.

That is because, with very few exceptions, California employees who suffer a work-related injury or illness cannot sue their employer in civil court.  Instead, such employees must pursue relief through a workers-compensation claim.

Even though there probably won’t be a rash of employee lawsuits related to COVID-19, California employers should anticipate an increase in workers-compensation claims related to that coronavirus.  Such claims typically would assert that an employee was exposed to the contagion on the job and became ill, unable to work, and in need of medical attention and treatment.

Indeed, California Gov. Gavin Newsom this week mandated a presumption that an employee’s COVID-19-related illness is work-related under certain circumstances.  In Executive Order N-62-20, signed on May 6, 2020, Gov. Newsom directed that “[a]ny COVID-19-related illness of an employee shall be presumed to arise out of … the employment for purposes of awarding workers’ compensation benefits if [specified] requirements are satisfied.”

Under that executive order, the presumption only arises if the employee tested positive for, or was diagnosed by a qualified physician as having, COVID-19 within 14 days after performing work directed by the employer at the employee’s place of employment.  The presumption does not arise if the employee worked from home during that timeframe, or if he or she was otherwise not on the job on or after March 19, 2020.

Just because such a presumption arises, that does not mean the source of the employee’s infection is beyond dispute.  On the contrary the executive order confirms that the presumption “is disputable and may be controverted by other evidence.”  Moreover, if “an employee has paid sick leave benefits specifically available in response to COVID-19, those benefits [must] be used and exhausted before any [workers-compensation] temporary disability benefits … are due and payable.”

Of course, employees who file such claims may also allege that their illness was caused by the employer’s serious and willful misconduct.  If a worker were to succeed on such a claim, it could result in the “amount of compensation otherwise recoverable [being] increased [by] one-half” under section 4553 of the California Labor Code.

To prevail on such a claim, the infected employee would have to prove that the employer maliciously (not just negligently) engaged in such misconduct.  Simply opening up for business after the government said it was ok to do so, by itself, almost surely wouldn’t amount to serious and willful misconduct – but opening sooner than that might.  Employers also may face greater risk of liability under such a claim if they maliciously (not just carelessly) fail to provide necessary protective gear or enforce social-distancing or sanitary guidelines.

Therefore, absent some unanticipated development, any presumed action that Congress may take in passing a federal law to shield employers from such lawsuits probably won’t have much of an impact in the Golden State.  Still, employers here should be mindful of the new presumption that an employee’s COVID-19 infection may be an industrial illness covered by workers-compensation laws.  To inoculate against potential claims that a COVID-19 infection was caused by serious and willful misconduct, California employers should consult with competent legal counsel to prepare for reopening their business in the coming weeks and months.