As a general principal, California law imposes on employers an affirmative duty to ensure their employees have access to a safe work environment. In a decision tailor-made for the COVID era (although the facts giving rise to it preceded the pandemic), the California Court of Appeal in Colonial Van & Storage Inc. v. Superior Court held that this duty may not extend to an employee’s home—rather, an employer does not have a duty to protect working-at-home employees from third party criminal conduct.
The facts underlying the Colonial lawsuit are uniquely tragic. The homeowner and her husband were both employed by the defendant/petitioner Colonial Van & Storage, Inc. (“Colonial”). As part of her job, Colonial authorized the homeowner to work from home at her discretion, and she frequently hosted co-workers in her home for social and work-related reasons. On March 24, 2017, the homeowners hosted a dinner in their home for a co-worker, as well as an employee of another moving company whom the homeowner knew through work. Also present was the homeowner’s son, a 26-year-old veteran suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder, who had a history of misuse of firearms and self-harm. At some point in the evening, the son opened fire on the dinner party with a handgun, killing the homeowner’s husband and wounding the attendees. The attendees thereafter filed suit against the homeowner and Colonial for personal injury damages.
Colonial moved for summary judgment, arguing that it was not legally responsible for the harm done because it did not own, possess, or control its employee’s home. The trial court denied Colonial’s motion, and Colonial petitioned the Court of Appeal for writ of mandate to vacate the trial court’s order.
On writ review, the Court of Appeal for the Second District held that Colonial’s motion for summary judgment should have been granted. The court based its decision in large part on its determination that Colonial did not own, possess, or control the home where the shooting occurred. Thus, it noted that the plaintiffs had set forth no evidence that Colonial “set specific hours for the employees to work in the home, provided or paid for landscaping or a security system, designated the home as a business location for insurance or tax purposes, or named the home as an extension of its business in any in-house documents or communications with outside businesses.” The Court of Appeal further rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that the mere fact that Colonial derived a commercial benefit from the use of the home created a duty for Colonial to protect, reasoning that such a holding “would mean that every employer would be absolutely liable for any injury suffered at home by working-at-home employees.”
The Colonial decision is an expected decision based on extreme facts. As employers continue to navigate the work-from-home landscape, it provides a useful guidepost. Thus, liability may attach to employers when employees’ work-from-home arrangements are subject to more stringent direction and control than that imposed by Colonial, or where employee injury results from foreseeable conditions (unlike those at issue in Colonial). As a result, employers must balance the need to provide a baseline of control over their remote employees against the potential for liability that may attach where they exercise direction and control. And, of course, the specifics matter in terms of how the control relates to the claims at issue.
Many of our clients have remote workers and we are very familiar with these issues. If you are interested in discussing these issues, please feel free to contact us.