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Coronavirus presents liability challenges to businesses of all kinds

The coronavirus, or COVID-19, has placed a burden not just on every person to practice social distancing but also upon businesses to protect their employees, clients and customers amid the global pandemic.

 

Many business-owners and employers who are still operating during the pandemic have wisely adopted new employment procedures and policies to protect their workforce and those with whom they interact. 

 

COVID-19 protection and safety policies tend to focus on maintaining social distancing guidelines.  The policies vary greatly from company to company but may include the following general features:

 

  • Limiting the worksite to essential employees and keeping unnecessary visitors or third parties away from the workforce.
  • Keeping a log of who was at the worksite each day and time.
  • Re-aligning and distancing workspaces so that employees are further apart.
  • Requiring employees to take their temperatures before arriving or upon arriving at work.
  • Providing personal protective equipment (“PPE”) such as facemasks or latex gloves, if available, as well as ample hand-sanitizer and disinfectant wipes.
  • Requiring employees to not report in if they have any symptoms or known exposures.
  • Suspending work that requires close contact among employees.
  • Liberal allowance of sick leave.
  • Increasing cleaning services to include disinfecting surfaces, common areas, door and cabinet handles, and tables, tools or items frequently accessed by workers.  
 

 

Employers who fail to implement simple social-distancing policies or who neglect CDC guidelines unnecessarily open themselves to liability in the event that an employee or a customer contracts the virus as a result of the employer’s negligence. 

 

Wrongful death suit against Walmart

Nationwide, it was recently reported that a 51-year old employee of Walmart contracted and died from the coronavirus.  ABC News reported that the decedent’s family filed a lawsuit against Walmart alleging that the company failed to take reasonable steps to protect its employees.  

 

The wrongful death complaint alleges that Walmart failed to provide personal protective equipment (“PPE”), ignored the decedent's complaints of coronavirus symptoms, required him to continue working in close contact with others, and failed to implement common sense policies to protect their employees and customers.  Further, the lawsuit alleges that Walmart failed to notify co-workers when another co-worker first contracted the virus and died from it. 

 

The Plight of the Modern Nurse

High volume retailers, such as Walmart, are not the only businesses whose employees and clientele are at risk.  News stories abound of nurses and healthcare providers at hospitals across the globe who are being asked to work with high-risk patients without PPE.  Those who have proper masks, such as the N-95 mask, are commonly being asked to “recycle” it for as long as up to a week at a time, when previous guidelines required changing out masks patient-by-patient.  Of course, this raises questions of whether such employees who contract the virus will be eligible for workers’ compensation or other claims against their employers.  Similarly it raises questions as to the proper standard of care during a pandemic and PPE shortage in the event of medical malpractice suits by patients who first contract the virus at a healthcare facility.   

 

Communication is Key

As industry standards become more widespread for the proper manner by which businesses should safeguard against the coronavirus, one thing has become clear about the proper response to a known occurrence of the disease: communication is key. 

 

Any business with a known employee testing positive should notify co-workers and customers who have come into contact with that employee of their possible exposure to the virus.  Likewise, healthcare facilities should report and request assistance, if necessary, rather than seeking to mitigate or cover-up an outbreak. 

 

All businesses -- whether they are retail stores, restaurants, healthcare providers, or nursing homes – must take prudent steps to protect their employees and clientele to keep them safe and to reduce the risk of both spreading the virus and ensuing liability. 

 

Egan, Flanagan & Cohen has several business attorneys who are well-versed in crafting and assessing business safety plans, policies and protocol, including new or revised policies in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.  We regularly serve businesses and non-profits of all sizes in drafting policies and responding to issues of this type.  

 

We are also a leading firm in the area of wrongful death on both the plaintiff’s and defense side.  In order to serve our existing and new clients during this pandemic, we have practiced what we preach by upgrading our own video-conference and IT abilities.  This has enabled Egan, Flanagan & Cohen to pursue our clients’ goals at full force despite the interruption to business as usual. 

 

In order to speak or video-conference with an attorney today on any issue related to the coronavirus pandemic, feel free to call us at (413) 737-0260 or email the attorney author of this article, Michael G. McDonough, Esq., at mgm@efclaw.com. 

 

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