COVID-19 Wrongful Death Claims | What to Know

In light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, a California court has issued a ruling with implications that may reach well beyond California’s borders. A California appellate court denied a request to dismiss a case by an employer who had been sued by the surviving spouse and daughters of a man who died after contracting COVID-19 from the spouse, who allegedly contracted the disease at work and then transmitted the disease to her husband while she convalesced at home. See’s Candies v. Superior Court. Read on and contact our team to learn more about the COVID-19 wrongful death claims process.

How did the COVID-19 wrongful death claims process begin?

In the See’s case, the plaintiff filed a wrongful death action against her employer, contending that she contracted COVID-19 at work due to the defendants’ failure to implement adequate safety measures, that her husband subsequently caught the disease from her while she convalesced at home, and that her husband died from the disease a month later.

See’s Candies claimed that the plaintiffs’ claims were preempted by the exclusivity provisions of California’s Workers’ Compensation Act (WCA). In particular, they argued that plaintiffs’ claims were barred under the “derivative injury doctrine,” under which the WCA’s exclusivity provisions preempt not only those causes of action premised on a compensable workplace injury, but also those causes of action premised on injuries collateral to or derivative of such an injury.

The employer argued that a claim is derivative if it would not exist absent injury to the employee. Because the plaintiff alleges her husband contracted COVID-19 from her, who in turn contracted the disease at work, the employer contended the husband’s death would not have occurred absent the plaintiff’s workplace exposure, and thus was derivative of the plaintiff’s work-related injury. Following that theory, the employer argued plaintiffs’ claims were subject to WCA exclusivity and that the wrongful death case should be dismissed. The trial court disagreed and the employer filed an appeal.

The appellate court relying on the decision in Synder v. Michael’s Stores, Inc., agreed with the trial court, saying that the fact an employee’s injury was the biological cause of a nonemployee’s injury did not thereby make the nonemployee’s claim derivative of the employee’s injury.

What bearing does Synder v. Michael’s Stores, Inc. have on the COVID-19 wrongful death claims process?

In Synder, a minor and her mother and father sued the mother’s former employer, alleging that the employer negligently allowed a janitorial contractor to operate a propane-powered floor-buffing machine in the store without adequate ventilation, resulting in hazardous levels of carbon monoxide. They further alleged that both the mother and the minor, who was then in utero, were exposed to toxic levels of carbon monoxide.

The mother was taken to the hospital with symptoms of nausea, headaches and respiratory distress. The plaintiffs alleged that the minor suffered permanent damage to her brain and nervous system, causing her to be born with cerebral palsy and other disabling conditions. The minor sought damages for her physical injuries, and her parents sought economic damages for the increased medical, educational and other expenses they have incurred and would subsequently incur due to the minor’s physical injuries.

The Court in Snyder rejected the proposition that workers’ compensation exclusivity extends to all third-party claims deriving from some condition affecting the employee, or that a nonemployee’s injury is collateral to or derivative of an employee’s injury merely because they both resulted from the same negligent conduct by the employer. The Court concluded that the plaintiffs’ claims were not barred by the doctrine, noting that the plaintiffs alleged that both the mother and child were exposed to the carbon monoxide, injuring both and the child was seeking damages for her own injuries.

According to the Court, the derivative injury doctrine does not bar civil actions by all children who were harmed in utero through some event or condition affecting their mothers; it bars only attempts by the child to recover civilly for the mother’s own injuries or for the child’s legally dependent losses. The Court added that the compensation bargain is between a business and its employees and generally does not include third-party injuries.

Seizing on this determination, the court in See’s Candies stated that there is little difference conceptually between a mother breathing in a poisonous gas and conveying it to her unborn child, and a wife breathing in viral particles that she then conveys to family members. In both cases, the employee is merely the conduit of a toxin or pathogen; whether the employee herself was harmed by the toxin or pathogen is not relevant to the claims of the injured family members.

Contact MSA Meds 

The complexities of this legal issue, of all legal issues, is why it is important for injured workers to consult with an attorney regarding their work-related injuries and any possible repercussions those injuries could have on the worker’s family.  MSA Meds and its affiliated pharmacy, Alliance Meds, stand ready to work with you, your doctors and your attorney in your recovery from your work-related injury.  Contact MSA Meds today.