Is My Employer Liable If I “Take-Home” Covid-19 To My Family?

Buffalo Personal Injury Attorney Robert Friedman discusses why employee’s family members who contract Covid-19 could cost employers billions of dollars for wrongful death.

Good Morning. I am Bob Friedman attorney with Friedman & Ranzenhofer, PC. Welcome to the October1st, 2020 edition of the Legal Survival Channel: Today’s Legal News You Can Use

Courts have split on the issue, which will likely be raised in new lawsuits alleging that employer’s negligence caused employees to become ill and to pass on the COVID-19 virus to family members. Businesses with COVID-19 outbreaks are facing claims that employees brought coronavirus home and infected relatives. It is estimated that between 7% and 9% of the 200,000 U.S. COVID-19 deaths to date stem from take-home infections. Lawsuits could cost businesses up to $21 billion if U.S fatalities reach 300,000.

The lawsuits will be patterned after asbestos cases in which family members became ill after workers brought home asbestos fibers on their clothes. Take-home cases have been here for decades in asbestos litigation. Courts have split on whether a business has an obligation to members of the public who have never been on their premises. A California jury in 2013 awarded Rose-Marie Griggs $27.3 million in compensatory and punitive damages after she contracted mesothelioma that her lawyers argued was caused by asbestos fibers carried home in the 1950s on the work clothes of her then-husband, who installed insulation for an affiliate of Owens-Illinois Inc. The company appealed, but a private settlement was reached before the appeal was heard.

The first coronavirus wrongful death “take-home” lawsuit was filed in August of 2020 by the daughter of Esperanza Ugalde of Illinois. Esperanza’s husband contracted the virus around April 28, 2020 as a butcher at the Aurora Packing Company meat processing plant. Esperanza contracted the virus shortly afterwards and died May 2,2020 at age 67. The daughter alleges that her father worked “shoulder to shoulder” on the processing line in April of 2020 when Aurora knew it had a coronavirus outbreak at its facility and failed to warn employees or adopt any infection prevention measures.

A second lawsuit alleges that Miriam Alvarez Reynoso contracted COVID-19 from her husband, a parts assembler, and had “serious injuries to multiple organs.” She claims that she became sick while caring for her husband, who worked at Byrne & Schaefer Inc. in Lockport, Illinois. She lists 18 categories of alleged shortcomings by Byrne & Schaefer, including failing to clean work areas and ignoring employees who said they had COVID-19 symptoms.

The “causal chain” will be an issue in these cases. Plaintiffs must prove that employers failed to implement safety measures, which led employees to get sick and to infect his or her family members. The plaintiffs will have to show that the employee took precautions to prevent becoming ill from other sources.

The cases borrow elements from “take home” asbestos litigation and avoid caps on liability for workplace injuries, exposing employers to costly pain and suffering damages, even though the plaintiffs never set foot on their premises. Plaintiffs in COVID-19 cases will not be subject to the caps on liability that employees face with workers’ compensation. The workers’ compensation system makes it difficult for workers to sue for COVID-19. The system caps liability for businesses and bars costly lawsuits in return for quick payments to employees, without the need to prove fault. But Esperanza Ugalde was not an employee of Aurora, so her family can sue the company. A successful wrongful death case can exceed $1 million in damages.

For further information, please see our Covid-19 Employment Issues page and our New York Personal Injury Guide

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