The COVID-19 pandemic has created an array of problematic issues for workers across the country. Chief among them are the rights of workers and families who suffer illness or death after contracting the coronavirus on the job.
In an article recently published by The Wall Street Journal, reporters profiled an Aldous \ Walker case to highlight the challenges of litigating claims involving workers who contract viruses at work, and featured quotes from our own Partner Brent Walker.
Virus Claims & Employer Liability
In the article, WSJ profiles the tragic stories of several American workers who died after contracting COVID-19. This includes workers who became sick while handling produce in a Safeway distribution center, working at Walmart, helping patients at a nursing and rehabilitation center, and performing their duties at a Tyson pork processing plant which experienced a significant outbreak.
In these cases, families of the deceased brought claims against employers, alleging that they failed to take reasonable steps to ensure safe workplaces for their loved ones – by failing to implement recommended protections, require face masks, follow OSHA guidance, or take other precautionary measures.
As coronavirus claims garner more attention, the WSJ cited the Ebola outbreak of 2014 as an indicator of what could happen in COVID-19 lawsuits brought by workers and families.
Specifically, it profiles an Aldous \ Walker case in which our firm sued the owner of a Dallas hospital on behalf of a nurse who contracted the Ebola virus, alleging that it failed to properly train and protect staff to handle Ebola. While the company that owned the hospital denied the claims, the parties ultimately reached a confidential resolution in 2016.
As Partner Brent Walker tells the WSJ, hospitals that fail to provide properly-fitted N95 masks to health care professionals treating COVID-19 patients face liability risks because federal regulations already required them to do so before the pandemic. He adds that other cases will likely hinge on whether health care employers complied with U.S. and international safety guidelines.
Ultimately, Attorney Walker notes, coronavirus claims may come down to one simple question:
“What was negligent as opposed to just an unfortunate outcome?”
Proposed Liability Protections Could Create Complications
As the article goes on to discuss, coronavirus claims could be greatly complicated by pending legislation.
At a time when workers face health risks unlike anything seen in over a century, a relief bill proposed by Senate Republicans – the “SAFE TO WORK Act” – seeks to unnecessarily shield employers from liability whose workers get sick at work, and create significant obstacles for workers and families who seek accountability and compensation in the civil justice system.
A few of the key aspects of the proposed bill include:
- Shielding dangerous corporations from liability over coronavirus infections beginning (retroactively) December 2019 and until October 2024.
- Permitting lawsuits only in cases of “gross negligence and willful misconduct” by the Defendant.
- Requiring Plaintiffs who bring claims to meet higher burdens (i.e. proving fault by clear and convincing evidence), and prove any persons and places to which they were exposed 14 days before their symptoms were not the cause of their infection.
- Limiting damages Plaintiffs can recover only to economic damages unless they can prove willful misconduct, and limiting punitive damages to not exceed economic damages.
- Increasing costs and challenges for filing claims for Plaintiffs by moving all liability cases to federal courts.
While the SAFE TO WORK Act strips workers and families of essential rights, it clears the path for corporations to freely skirt responsibility for ensuring safe workplaces, and evade accountability when they fail to take reasonable steps to protect workers and consumers.
In short, it allows corporations to continue reaping profits while relinquishing all the risk.
To add insult to injury, the measure would grant corporations the right to sue workers (or their representatives) who bring coronavirus claims and offer to settle, if such claims are “meritless” – which the act fails to define. It would also not cap punitive damages awarded to employers who bring these lawsuits like it does for employees.
At Aldous \ Walker, we’re committed exclusively to fighting for injured victims, workers, and families who’ve suffered due to the negligent and wrongful acts of others. With a success record of cases against some of the world’s largest corporations, we know Big Business cares more about profits than people, and that, without regulations and the threat of litigation and enforcement, will only put the lives of people and employees further down their list of priorities.
If you have questions about your rights and legal options following a preventable accident, illness, or wrongful death, our team is available to review your case. Call or contact us to speak with a lawyer.