California law requires employers to furnish a “safe and healthful” workplace to employees. Now that the line between “workplace” and “home” has been blurred for so many workers in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the law has been unclear as to whether that obligation extends to an employee whose “workplace” happens to be their residence. In Colonial Van & Storage, Inc. v. Superior Court, a California appeals court answered at least one iteration of that question: An employer’s duty to ensure workplace safety does not extend to ensuring that an “off-site meeting place,” including an employee’s home, is safe from “third party criminal harm.”
The facts of the case are tragic and unusual—an employee of the defendant, Colonial Van & Storage, who occasionally worked from home invited her coworkers over for dinner. The employee’s son, who lived with her and was a veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, used a handgun stored in the house to attack the party, wounding each attendee and killing one.
The appeals court found that Colonial could not be held liable for the coworkers’ injuries. Because Colonial did not “control” the employee’s home, either legally or through acts showing ownership, Colonial had no duty to ensure that it was safe. The fact that Colonial derived some commercial benefit from the home—in that the employee performed some work there—was not enough to create that duty.
The court also noted that accepting respondents’ arguments would have sweeping consequences for the employer-employee relationship. Holding “every employer . . . absolutely liable for any injury suffered at home by working-at-home employees” would not only be extremely onerous for employers—who would have to expend significant effort and money to secure and insure every employee’s home—but also for employees, who would essentially cede any right to privacy in their own home to their employer’s legal obligation to inspect, modify, and surveil their private residences.
An employer could avoid these costs by simply not allowing any employees to work from home, but the court did not find this a fair or realistic option, considering how many employees need to work from home for personal reasons (such as caring for a child or an elder relative) as well as legal obligations (such as abiding by a mandatory quarantine order).