Kane County Circuit Court Dismisses Wrongful Death Lawsuit Alleging Employee Contracted Covid-19 at Work and Then Transmitted the Virus to His Spouse
On March 31, 2021, a circuit court judge in Kane County determined that employers owe no duty of care to their employees’ spouses who contract Covid-19 in the workplace. As alleged in the lawsuit, Ricardo Ugalde was employed as a butcher at a meat packing company when he contracted the virus at work on or about April 28, 2020. The employee transmitted the virus to his wife at home, resulting in her death on May 2, 2020. The Complaint further alleged that the meat packing company was aware that other employees were infected and took no measures to mitigate the spread of the virus.
The employer moved to dismiss the Complaint on the grounds it owed no duty of care to its employees’ spouses. In Illinois, whether a duty of care is owed is a question of law and turns on whether the defendant and the plaintiff stood in such a relationship that the law imposed upon the defendant an obligation to exercise reasonable conduct for the benefit or protection of the plaintiff. To determine that question, our courts must analyze four factors. Those factors are: (1) the reasonable foreseeability of injury, (2) the likelihood of injury, (3) the magnitude of the burden of guarding against the injury, and (4) the consequences of placing that burden upon the defendant. The Illinois Supreme Court has further indicated that policy considerations are taken into consideration in weighing the four factors. In Kirk vs. Michael Reese Hospital, 117 Ill. 2d 507 (2009), the Court explained the determination of whether a legal duty of care exists reflects “the policy and social requirements of the time and community” and represents “an expression of the sum total of those considerations of policy.”
In this Covid-19 case, the trial judge noted the decedent stood in no special relationship with the employer. She was not an invitee on the premises and she was not a consumer whose death resulted from the defendant’s products or services. Though married to and living with the employee, the trial judge noted that “the Decedent’s relationship to Defendant was no different from the relationship of any citizen of the world who might encounter an employee of Defendant who contracted Covid while at work.” The trial judge went on to observe that the Workers’ Compensation Act was enacted for the protection of workers injured in the workplace and then posed the following rhetorical question: “Is that policy then served by extending a common law duty with unlimited liability to a pool of potential claimants mediated only by the travels and uncontrolled contacts of employees outside of their workplace?”
The trial judge answered that question in the negative. “Ultimately, applying the four factors to the policy considerations in this matter it is clear that both the magnitude of guarding against the burden of employees spreading Covid to third parties and, perhaps more importantly, the consequences of placing that burden on Defendant mitigate against the imposition of a duty.”
The trial judge dismissed the lawsuit with prejudice. Erika Iniguez, as Administrator of the Estate of Esperanza Ulgalde, deceased vs. Aurora Packing Company, Inc., 20 L 000372. Whether or not the Plaintiff will appeal remains to be seen.