January 30, 2023

Volume XIII, Number 30

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January 30, 2023

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Real WFH Stories: Employer Not Responsible for Ensuring Safety of Employees’ Homes, Appeals Court Holds

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).

© 2023 Proskauer Rose LLP. National Law Review, Volume XII, Number 95
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About this Author

Mark Theodore, Employment Attorney, Proskauer Rose
Partner

Mark Theodore is a partner in the Labor & Employment Law Department. He has devoted his practice almost exclusively to representing management in all aspects of traditional labor law matters throughout the U.S. 

Some highlights of his career include:

  • Successfully negotiated the first contract for a shipping agency during constant threat by union to shut down Port of Los Angeles

  • Successfully defended a major theme park when the NLRB sought bargaining order after the union...

310-284-5640
Law Clerk

Dixie Morrison is a law clerk in the Labor Department and a member of the Employment Litigation & Arbitration Group.

310-557-5616
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