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COVID-19 Case Finds Traction in Federal Court

February 16, 2021

California employers are subject to important safety standards intended to help avoid employee exposures to COVID-19.  Cases of actual or alleged exposure may implicate employers’ workers’ compensation coverage, with one Court now reaffirming that an employer’s knowing or intentional violation of those standards can trigger serious civil exposure as well.

On January 6, 2021, the San Diego Federal District Court issued an opinion in Arnold v. Corecivic of Tennessee LLC (Case No.: 20-CV-00809 W; 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 2868*; 2021 WL 63109) confirming that an employee can circumvent the workers’ compensation exclusive remedy when he can plead facts showing that his employer knowingly failed to implement required safety protections in a manner placing employees at direct risk of exposure to the virus.

Summary of the Case

Plaintiff Arnold was a detention officer at Corecivic’s Otay Mesa Detention Center, one of many correctional and detention facilities it operates throughout the country.  By March 2020, the Mesa facility was faced with over 200 known cases.  Mr. Arnold contends Corecivic failed to take protective measures to limit the spread of the disease (including a failure to provide masks, gloves, and sanitizers, and ensure social distancing), with Corecivic also preventing detention officers from wearing face coverings inside the housing units and while in close proximity with detainees.   Mr. Arnold’s civil Complaint contained causes of action for constructive wrongful termination (Mr. Arnold felt compelled to resign due to his health conditions) and violations of safety laws, negligent supervision, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The Exclusive Remedy Rule Did Not Apply to the Constructive Wrongful Termination Claims

The Exclusive Remedy Rule generally precludes employees from suing their employers in civil court, making the workers’ compensation system the exclusive forum for job related injuries and illnesses.  Exceptions to the rule generally involve showings that an employer fraudulently concealed risks of harm, or the employer knowingly or intentionally caused harm to an employee (or ratified such knowing or intentional misconduct by an employee), taking the matter outside of the normal risks engendered in the particular employer-employee relationship.

Plaintiff Arnold alleges that Corecivic acted in an intentionally wrongful manner by forcing him to work in a knowingly unsafe environment (prevented from wearing masks) and without adequate protective equipment (which California law requires an employer to provide to its employees).  The Court agreed that these factual allegations took the claim outside the scope of the workers’ compensation exclusive remedy.  Moreover, the Court agreed that the working conditions reached levels supporting the claim for a constructive wrongful termination in violation of California’s public policy of providing a safe working environment.

The Workers’ Compensation System was the Proper Venue for the Negligent Supervision and Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress Claims

The Court dismissed Plaintiff Arnold’s negligent supervision and intentional infliction of emotional distress claims, finding them subsumed solely within the workers’ compensation exclusive remedy rule. The court was not convinced that these types of injuries were beyond the employer/employee bargaining agreement, even if the underlying facts might give rise to obligations for extra compensation under Labor Code Section 4553.

The Takeaway

Arnold makes clear that if an employee can factually assert what appear to be knowing failures to provide safety equipment, or to direct employees to engage in unsafe actions leading to increased exposures, civil claims can be filed that cannot be summarily dismissed or made subject to “exclusive remedy” issues.  Once in the civil realm, employers will then face not only claims for compensatory and special damages, but also claims for attorneys’ fees and potentially even punitive damages.   Arnold therefore becomes an important reminder for employers to help ensure their employees receive proper equipment, are properly trained in safety protocols and standards, and they receive all required notifications of safety issues as required by law or local health departments.

Co-Written By:

Trina N. Dresden, Esq. of our LFLM-San Francisco Office

Robert A. Cutbirth, Esq. of Freeman Mathis & Gary LLP.

Laughlin, Falbo, Levy & Moresi, LLP.