See's Candies must face worker's COVID lawsuit after Cal high court denies appeal

Empoyees of chocolate and cocoa product maker Barry Callebaut prepare chocolates in Zurich
REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann
  • No review of ruling allowing worker to sue over husband's COVID death
  • Business groups have warned of endless liability for employers
  • Federal appeals court considering the same issue

(Reuters) - The California Supreme Court will not review a novel ruling that said a candymaker can be sued by an employee who claims she contracted COVID-19 at work and spread it to her husband, who died.

Trade groups have warned the lawsuit could spur limitless liability for businesses, but the court on Wednesday denied a petition by See's Candies Inc for review of the December decision. It was the first by an appeals court allowing a worker's lawsuit against an employer over a family member's COVID death to proceed.

More than two dozen so-called "take-home" COVID-19 lawsuits have been filed across the country, including ones against Inc, Walmart Inc, McDonald's Corp, and Caribbean Cruises Ltd. Trade groups have said allowing employers to be held liable for COVID infections will prompt lawsuits not only by workers' family and friends, but by anyone infected by that circle of people.

Plaintiff Matilde Ek claims she contracted COVID-19 at a See's factory because the company failed to ensure workplace safety, and that her husband died after she passed it on to him.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups have backed See's, arguing in court briefs that Ek's claims are covered by state workers' compensation law, which precludes her from suing in court, because contracting COVID on the job would be a workplace injury.

But the appeals court in December said it was not any injury to Ek that caused her husband's death, but rather the COVID-19 virus for which she served as a "conduit."

Lawyers at Munger Tolles & Olson who represent See's did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday. Neither did Joel Krissman, a lawyer for Ek.

The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is currently considering whether employers can be liable under California law for take-home COVID in a separate case involving a woodworking company.

During oral arguments last month, Circuit Judge John Wallace called the See's Candies decision "a gamechanger" and suggested that the 9th Circuit would ask the California Supreme Court to decide the question.

The case is See's Candies Inc v. Superior Court, California Supreme Court, No. S272923.

For Ek: Joel Krissman of Krissman & Silver

For See's: Joseph Lee of Munger Tolles & Olson

Read more:

9th Circ signals may need help with 'take-home' COVID liability question

Employer must face worker's lawsuit over husband's COVID death -California court

U.S. business fears never ending liability from 'take-home' COVID-19 lawsuits

'Take home' lawsuits over COVID infections could be costly for U.S. employers

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Dan Wiessner (@danwiessner) reports on labor and employment and immigration law, including litigation and policy making. He can be reached at