Monday, June 8, 2020

Workers’ Compensation and Public Nuisance: Two Caveats

In previous posts I have been arguing that employees could probably not succeed in public nuisance suits because of the exclusive remedy rule. But that leads to an additional problem: suppose COVID-19 is categorically not covered by workers’ compensation in a particular state, is a public nuisance suit subject to the exclusive remedy rule then? Here one should distinguish situations in which a disease is categorically excluded from coverage from those in which the disease is not excluded from coverage but it is very difficult to prove under workers’ compensation causation principles. Where an injury or disease is categorically excluded from workers’ compensation coverage, exclusivity generally does not apply and a tort suit, including a public nuisance suit, can probably be pursued. Where an injury or disease is covered but not proven, or where workers’ compensation provides what is thought an inadequate recovery, exclusivity usually applies nonetheless. (The Larson’s treatise has a good discussion on the relationship between non-coverage and exclusivity at 9 Larson's Workers' Compensation Law § 100.04).

In this regard, readers may recall that in 2013 the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held, in Tooey v. AK Steel Corp., the exclusivity provision of the Pennsylvania Act did not apply to common law claims brought by employees for occupational diseases manifesting outside of the 300-week period prescribed by the act (as it existed at that time). Why? The short explanation is that if the disease manifested after 300 weeks (not an unusual development in many occupational disease cases) it was no longer an “injury” as defined under the Pennsylvania Act. Under those circumstances, a tort claim with respect to contraction of the disease could no longer constitutionally be barred under exclusivity (or more precisely the Pennsylvania legislature could not have intended such a result) because the claimant would be left with no remedy.

A number of states categorically exclude “infectious diseases” from coverage under their workers’ compensation statutes, or only include them where the diseases are incident to some “injury.” (4 Larson's Workers' Compensation Law § 51.01). Strictly enforced in the COVID-19 context claimants not allowed a tort action (including in public nuisance) might be denied any recovery, raising the Tooey problem discussed above. Some state statutes explicitly exclude coverage of diseases to which the general public is equally exposed. (4 Larson's Workers' Compensation Law § 51.02). Note here the interplay between the workers’ compensation causation presumptions and tort law: the more coverage under workers’ compensation the less potential coverage under tort, including public nuisance. (As I constantly press my torts and workers’ compensation classes, does the employer really not want to be covered by workers’ compensation?). The conclusion is that workplace public nuisance cases will be strongest where a state’s workers’ compensation system has either categorically excluded infectious diseases from coverage or has made it almost impossible to recover under workers’ compensation. The public nuisance suits will be weakest where states have enacted workers’ compensation COVID-19 presumptions.  

One final point. In my last post I mentioned in passing the general rule that workers’ compensation also affords employees’ dependent family members their exclusive remedy for injury derivative of the employee’s work-related illness, injury, or death. This rule encompasses survival and wrongful death actions as well as actions in which the employee is disabled but not killed. One exception to the rule involves situations which the Larson’s treatise terms “independent breaches of duty toward a spouse or parent.” For the most part these “independent breach” cases involve unusual facts in which spouses (in particular—though there are some interesting “unborn child” cases) were subject to alleged tortious conduct by the employer, often of a conscience-shocking variety. (9 Larson's Workers’ Compensation Law § 101.03). As the treatise also mentions, however, three courts have allowed “bystander liability” tort claims in connection with spouses or families of employees exposed to asbestosis. Anderson v. A.J. Friedman Supply Co., Inc., 416 N.J. Super. 46, 3 A.3d 545 (2010), Kesner v. Superior Ct., 1 Cal. 5th 1132 (Dec. 1, 2016), Quisenberry v. Record No. 171494 Huntington Ingalls, Inc., 818 S.E.2d 805 (Va. 2018).

Quisenberry is interesting because there is no discussion of exclusivity in the majority opinion (possibly because it was responding to certified questions of state law posed by a federal court).

In Friedman there remained a question as to whether one spouse was in fact exposed to asbestos derived from the other spouse’s employment. Secondarily (and vaguely), the court relied on the “dual persona doctrine.” The dual persona doctrine would apply in situations when an employer has undertaken a completely separate and independent role with respect to an employee. It must be possible to say that the duty arose solely from the non-employer persona, rather than the other way around. It is not enough . . . that the second persona impose additional duties. They must be totally separate from and unrelated to those of the employment.

In Kesner, the California Supreme Court—also with no discussion of the workers’ compensation exclusivity problem—held that “the duty of employers and premises owners to exercise ordinary care in their use of asbestos includes preventing exposure to asbestos carried by the bodies and clothing of on-site workers. Where it is reasonably foreseeable that workers, their clothing, or personal effects will act as vectors carrying asbestos from the premises to household members, employers have a duty to take reasonable care to prevent this means of transmission.”

Quisenberry, Friedman, and Kesner are perhaps not true workers’ compensation exclusivity cases if exclusivity is viewed narrowly. After all, asbestosis is not an infectious disease. The gravamen of the complaints were not that the employee contracted asbestosis and then infected household or family members. The employee’s physical condition was essentially irrelevant to the cases: the wind might have blown the asbestos through the window, the employee was a mere instrumentality of carrying asbestos fibers into the house. In COVID-19 contexts, the employee herself would become exposed (though possibly asymptomatically) and then transmit the disease to family members. But viewing exclusivity broadly these cases “could have” cut off tort liability through workers’ compensation exclusivity but did not; and for that reason I suspect the public nuisance plaintiffs will be looking at them closely.

Michael C Duff

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I'm wondering if there will be sweeping changes on a national level for workers once we get to the other side of the COVID-19 Pandemic. Since none of us have seen such chaos, perhaps it is time to address it though of course, I hope we never see another pandemic!
Thanks for the article and information.

Posted by: Trish Blassingame | Jun 29, 2020 11:26:26 PM

I would be surprised if the current situation did not usher in major structural changes in many areas of labor and employment law.

Posted by: Michael C. Duff | Jun 30, 2020 2:41:08 PM

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