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A lawsuit filed against See’s Candies, a century-old California institution, could make a fundamental change in the workers’ compensation system and its “exclusive remedy” provision.

Matilde Ek, a worker at a See’s distribution center in Southern California, contracted COVID-19 and apparently infected her 72-year-old husband, Arturo, who died. Ek said she worked on the See’s packing line without proper social distancing or other protections even though some workers were coughing, sneezing and showing other signs of COVID-19 infections.

She and her daughters sued See’s, alleging that since her workplace lacked sufficient safeguards against infection, the company is liable for his death.

See’s acknowledged that Ek’s illness was job-related but argued that since it was, the company was protected from liability for her husband’s death under the “exclusive remedy” doctrine.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Daniel M. Crowley refused, however, to throw out Ek’s lawsuit, agreeing with Ek’s attorney that her husband’s death was a separate event from her workplace infection.

Crowley’s ruling sent the issue into the appellate courts and it’s drawing attention from major California and national business groups, which see it as potentially undermining a bedrock principle of the workers’ compensation system.

The California Chamber of Commerce, California Workers’ Compensation Institute, Restaurant Law Center, California Restaurant Association, National Association of Manufacturers, and National Retail Federation have filed documents in the case as amicus.

They argue that the “issue presented in the petition is extremely important to employers and their employees in California. As explained in the petition, the Superior Court’s overruling of petitioners’ demurrer was contrary to the longstanding “derivative injury rule” that establishes workers’ compensation as the exclusive remedy for all claims that are derivative of an employee’s covered workplace injury – including claims for injuries sustained by members of the employee’s household. The Superior Court created a new exception to that bright-line rule for injuries from COVID-19 that allegedly derive from employees who contract the virus in the employer’s workplace and then infect their family members.”

The potential impact of this decision on the balance between the workers’ compensation system and the civil court system can hardly be overstated.

The Court of Appeal docket reflects that an Order was issued to the Superior Court on July 21, 2021, directing that it show cause why a peremptory writ should not issue, ordering it to vacate its April 13, 2021 order overruling petitioners’ demurrer to the complaint. The written return in opposition to the writ shall be served and filed on or before August 18, 2021. Any reply to the opposition shall be served and filed on or before September 16, 2021.