Worker’s compensation serves as the “exclusive remedy” for employees claiming benefits arising out of a work injury. Therefore, they are barred from suing their employers under more lucrative “tort” theories for injuries arising out of their employment. But how does the exclusive remedy provision apply when an employee claims his allegedly work-related COVID-19 condition was transmitted to his wife, who subsequently died from the contagion? Can he pursue a wrongful death action against his employer in tort? Or is he barred by the exclusive remedy provision from doing so? What about the spouse’s estate? Can the nonemployee’s estate pursue a tort claim against the employer? Or is the estate also barred by the exclusive remedy provision? A Wisconsin federal district court recently addressed all of these issues.

Facts

Rigoberto Ruiz and the estate of his wife, Martha Amador de Ruiz, filed a wrongful death and survival action in federal court against his employer arising out of her death after she contracted COVID-19. The lawsuit alleged he contracted the illness while working for his employer, ConAgra Foods Packaged Food, LLC, in April 2020. Further, more than 100 workers tested positive for the virus in the same month, resulting in the company temporarily shutting down its plant. The litigants claimed Ruiz transmitted the virus to his wife, which caused her death a few weeks later.

ConAgra Foods asked the court to dismiss all of the claims arguing they were barred by Wisconsin Worker’s Compensation Act’s (WCA) exclusive remedy provision. The court issued a mixed ruling.

How Exclusive Remedy Provision Works

The WCA is best described as a compromise between employers and employees. Employers (via their insurance carriers) agree to compensate employees for work injuries, even if they were at fault. In exchange, employees agree to accept more modest worker’s comp benefits and give up the right to pursue more lucrative tort claims.

The compromise, often referred to as the “exclusive remedy,” provides the employee’s right to recover compensation under worker’s comp is the individual’s exclusive remedy against the employer, any coworker, and the worker’s comp carrier. Stated otherwise, with minor exceptions, an employee who sustains a work-related injury can’t pursue the more monetarily lucrative tort claims against the entities.

Notably, the exclusive remedy provision also applies to a nonemployee-spouse’s claims arising wholly from the employee-spouse’s work-related injury. It doesn’t apply, however, to independent physical injuries suffered by the nonemployee-spouse.

Exclusive Remedy Provision Applies to Employee’s Wrongful Death Claim

The district court held the WCA’s exclusive remedy provision barred Ruiz’s wrongful death claim against his former employer. The court explained the Act is the sole remedy for employees’ injuries arising out of their employment. Here, the amended complaint presented an “unbroken causal chain” from the employee’s workplace injury to the damages he suffered because of his wife’s death. As a result, his only remedy for his alleged injury was under the Act.

Notably, the WCA doesn’t provide benefits for the “wrongful death” of an employee’s spouse. Therefore, the ruling is a significant loss for Ruiz and a win for the employer.

Didn’t Apply to Nonemployee-spouse’s Estate

The district court held the WCA’s exclusive remedy didn’t bar the wife’s estate’s suit against her husband’s employer. The court explained she wasn’t a ConAgra employee, so the conditions for liability under the Act—that an individual must be an “employee” to recover benefits—weren’t satisfied.

The court acknowledged the exclusive remedy provision isn’t just limited to employees’ claims. It also bars the noninjured spouse’s claim deriving from the injury. The court distinguished the present case, however, by noting the wife was “not merely a ‘non-injured spouse’.” Rather, she suffered an independent injury when she contracted COVID-19 and died. The estate’s claim was based on the wife’s own independent injury sustained as a result of the employer’s allegedly negligent coronavirus protocols, and it wasn’t the case that she was seeking benefits for her husband’s COVID-19 injury.

The court also noted a broader interpretation of the WCA’s exclusive remedy provision would mean that if the husband infected a stranger, the other person also would be barred from suing despite having no connection to the husband or the employer or recourse under the Act. The court reasoned that such a result would be against public policy. Estate of de Ruiz v. ConAgra Foods Packaged Foods, LLC, no.21-CV-387-SCD (E.D. Wis., May 3, 2022).

Bottom Line

It’s important to note the district court’s decision says nothing about the compensability of a COVID-19-related worker’s comp claim. Just because the claim falls under the WCA’s exclusive remedy provision doesn’t mean it will actually be compensable under the Act. An employee would have to present medical evidence the virus was actually contracted at work. Given the widespread risk of contracting the illness in the general public, the employee will be facing an uphill battle.

The case does speak to the exclusive remedy provision’s parameters. It affirms that the exclusive remedy provision is far-reaching enough to bar an employee’s tort claims for “wrongful death.” The provision isn’t so broad, however, as to bar a spouse’s claims for independent injuries.

This article, slightly modified to note recent updates, was featured online in the Wisconsin Employment Law Letter and published by BLR®—Business & Legal Resources. Reproduced here with the permission of BLR®—Business & Legal Resources.