Five Facts about Legal Liability and COVID-19

U.S. businesses worry about possible legal liability – involving customers and/or employees – as the economy gradually reopens while the coronavirus pandemic continues. States, Congress and others are considering ways to protect businesses without unduly limiting individuals’ rights to seek redress for harmful and wrongful actions.

  1. Coronavirus-related liability has become a partisan issue.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) says any new economic stimulus packages must include new liability protections for businesses that reopen amid the pandemic. Otherwise, he says, business owners could face “an avalanche” of lawsuits from Covid-19 victims claiming the business caused their sickness. Congressional Democrats disagree, saying these businesses want unwarranted protections from potentially irresponsible behavior. Labor unions are siding with the Democrats, and pro-business groups such as the Chamber of Commerce want the new protections.

  1. Some businesses already have been sued.

The family of a Chicago-area man has sued his employer, Walmart, claiming it failed to follow workplace safety guidelines and thus caused the man’s death from Covid-19. A Missouri meat-packing plant also has been sued by an employee who contracted the coronavirus. Law firms say plaintiffs’ lawyers will continue seeking customers and employees who can contend that a business’ negligence caused their coronavirus.

  1. Plaintiffs, especially consumers, may have difficulty winning such lawsuits.

Courts generally will require accusers to show that the business in question “caused” their coronavirus. With many thousands of Americans contracting the disease in various places, law firms say it may be very difficult for a customer to pinpoint one business as the source of his or her contagion. Proving such a claim might be easier, however, for employees who spend hours a day in crowded conditions such as meat-processing plants.

  1. To reopen, businesses must choose which legal risks to take.

Whether a business opens or stays closed, “there’s litigation risk attached,” says Brian P. Downey, a lawyer with the firm Pepper Hamilton. If a business opens, customers or employees might claim its health precautions were negligently lax. But remaining closed after a state has allowed such businesses to open could lead to lawsuits from vendors with contracts vital to their own financial sustainability.

  1. Following basic safety guidelines may give employers legal protection.

Some pro-business groups want federal agencies to publish basic safety guidelines to help employers keep workers safe from the coronavirus. If businesses make reasonable efforts to follow such guidelines, legal scholars say, they might protect themselves from employee lawsuits. Such guidelines could include wearing masks and keeping six feet away from co-workers.


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