The COVID-19 pandemic has put everyone in the country at risk of infection. However, life must still go on. It’s still necessary to get food, medicine, and other important supplies. That means that one way or another, leaving home and heading to the grocery store or pharmacy is unavoidable for most people. The least these businesses can do is to protect you, their customers, from unnecessary risk of contagion.
Some companies are not taking the necessary precautions, though. That’s why there are so many pending lawsuits regarding COVID-19. From customers looking for damages for deceptive practice to families pressing wrongful death suits, people are fighting back.
In this article, we will first define premises liability and negligence, the two legal theories under which business owners are liable for maintaining unsafe premises. Then, we will look at some of the current and pending lawsuits by patrons and passengers who were infected with COVID-19 while on business premises.
What is Premises Liability?
Many of these lawsuits center on the concept of premises liability. This is the idea that owners of a premises owe their invitees – in this case, customers – a duty of care. There are four criteria which must be met for a premises liability lawsuit to be considered valid:
- The defendant owed a duty of care,
- The defendant did not meet their duty of care,
- The plaintiff was somehow harmed, and
- The plaintiff’s injury is a result of the defendant’s failure to exercise reasonable care.
Essentially, premises owners are supposed to take reasonable precautions to provide their invitees with a safe environment. That means that if the owner knows about an unsafe condition or problem, they must take reasonable and appropriate steps to fix it. Failing to do that is considered negligence. The trick is defining what is considered “reasonable” for a given situation.
What Constitutes COVID-19 Negligence?
Defining negligence is routinely the most in-depth part of a premises liability case. When it’s clear that the plaintiff was an invitee (a customer), then deciding on what standard of care could be considered reasonable is important.
In the past, there have been many successful personal injury lawsuits that involved infectious diseases. Illnesses like Legionnaire’s Disease, whose outbreaks can be traced to active negligence, are most likely to result in damages awarded to the plaintiff. When there is a reasonable standard of care in place, as there is for Legionnaire’s, failing to meet that is clearly negligence on the part of the property owner.
Some local and state governments have put higher standards into place, though. New York Governor Cuomo has limited malpractice lawsuits to only cases of gross negligence, instead of general negligence. This is a higher standard of care, protecting healthcare workers from potential lawsuits for doing their jobs.
Outside of medical malpractice claims, there are other scenarios in which you might have a case for negligence. Many state and local governments have put rules into place for businesses that are open. Documented evidence that the premises was not following these rules or other WHO and CDC guidelines makes it much more likely that they will be found negligent.
In California, there are five important steps that must be followed for a business to safely reopen.
- The business must perform a risk assessment and create a specific protection plan
- They must train employees on how to limit the spread of COVID-19. This includes how to screen themselves for symptoms and when to stay home.
- They must set up individual control measures and screenings
- They must put disinfection protocols in place
- They must establish physical distancing guidelines
If these rules are not put in place, then the business may be found negligent.
In particular, if an employee is known to potentially have the virus and the business permits them to work anyway, that is negligence of the highest order. Similarly, failing to warn customers or employees of a known infection risk in the business is likely also negligence. These types of issues are at the root of many of the current COVID-19 lawsuits.
Current Coronavirus Lawsuits
There are two major types of premises liability lawsuits being filed regarding the pandemic:
- First and foremost, there are lawsuits being filed by ill customers against various businesses.
- Second, there are similar suits being filed by families of deceased nursing home residents against the management of those residences.
Most of the customer lawsuits involving COVID-19 so far have been filed by cruise line passengers. Prior to cruises being suspended internationally, many cruise lines were continuing to run despite known on-board infections. This has led to class-action lawsuits being filed by passengers, including one against Carnival Cruise Lines.
This class action lawsuit alleges that Carnival failed to warn passengers of the infection risk after learning that there was an infection on board. Furthermore, Carnival allegedly failed to require any type of quarantining, social distancing, or even additional medical treatment. Should this be proven to be the case, it would be a clear example of negligence.
Similarly, some nursing homes are starting to face lawsuits from residents and their families. One Glendale family in particular has filed a wrongful death lawsuit for failing to take reasonable care of their father. This lawsuit alleges that the nursing home negligently allowed a nurse known to be exposed to COVID-19 to work her shift anyway, leading to five confirmed COVID-19 deaths so far. The lawsuit is directed at the nursing home itself, not at any of the medical professionals.
Both of these types of lawsuits have one uniting thread: the businesses involved did not take COVID-19 seriously. Whether they were actively deceitful or simply negligent is up for debate. Regardless, appropriate actions were not taken, and people were exposed to the virus. People were infected and killed by the virus because nursing home and cruise ship management did not follow known quarantine protocol.
Did You Fall Ill With COVID-19 After Visiting a California Business?
The current coronavirus pandemic is a constantly evolving situation. Infections can happen quickly with the smallest of contact. It’s the responsibility of every open business to do its best to protect employees and customers alike. If you believe you or a loved one has contracted COVID-19 through a business’s negligence, you should contact a premises liability lawyer immediately. They will be able to help review your case and explain your legal options.