After several weeks in lockdown and thousands of business closures in an attempt to control the spread of the novel coronavirus, businesses are finally reopening their doors. Given the high transmission of COVID-19, businesses should consider their risks of legal liability to visitors on their property – customers, employees and others – in the event of COVID-19 exposure at their premises. But the fear of civil liability remains a hindering problem. These claims will most commonly be pursued under the legal theory of negligence and plaintiffs may seeking financial compensation for their injuries and medical treatment related to COVID-19. Plaintiff’s lawyers in these cases will focus on the operations and procedures in place during the reopening. Some businesses are taking extraordinary measures to protect its customers, while others are doing the bare minimum. Businesses need to know how to be in compliance with best safety practices to prevent and defend against claims related to an alleged failure to protect customers from COVID-19 exposures.
Immunity for Businesses for COVID-19 Exposure?
A large number of states, including Massachusetts, have enacted laws to shield health care workers, health care facilities and volunteer organizations treating COVID-19 patients from negligence claims subject to certain exceptions. However, the immunity does not extend to cover damages caused by gross negligence or recklessness. It is important to note that these states have not provided similar immunity to other businesses, nor have they limited liability in cases involving gross negligence for COVID-19 related claims. There have been discussions of additional legislation to protect businesses in these cases, but this has yet to happen.
Tort Claims and Premises Liability Law in Massachusetts
Personal injury claims typically stem from negligent acts, where a party had a duty of care, failed to reasonably care for that individual, and that failure to care caused the individual harm or injury. A ”duty of care” exists when its reasonably foreseeable that some act or omission would cause some type of knowable harm, and thus taking reasonable action to ensure safety. The breach of that duty is the act or omission that causes the harm. The breach of duty must cause some damages. Damages are monetary compensation for the victim’s injuries and losses if liability is found.
Premises liability law, a subset of personal injury law, similarly holds that property owners owe a duty of reasonable care to visitors on their premises in Massachusetts, so as to not create or allow unsafe or hazardous conditions to exist on their premises that could cause injury or harm to patrons and guests. If a hazardous condition exists that could reasonably cause harm, and the property owner fails to remove it or warn of it, this could ultimately result in liability.
The duty of care is stricter for business owners, as they invite persons onto their property to purchase goods or services. The level of care owed depends upon the type of visitor on the property. Massachusetts has two types of lawfully present visitors: 1) licensees- individuals presenting financial gain for the property owner like patrons, diners, shoppers; and 2) invitees- those who are not providing any financial gain to the property owner like guests and friends at a social gathering. The property owner owes its visitors a duty of care, that is to keep the property reasonably safe. In this context, the property owner is well aware of the risks associated with COVID-19, the nature of the disease and how it is transmitted. If it did not take reasonable steps to prevent the transmission of the virus to its licensees and invitees, and the claimant can prove the business’ failure to exercise reasonable care was a “substantial contributing factor” in causing the claimant’s injury, they may be entitled to damages, which can include among other things, medical expenses, economic damages, and even emotional distress.
Breach of Duty
There is an abundance of guidance available to businesses on the virus, transmission, preventative measures. Whether a business “breached” their duty of care will focus on what the business did to determine if taking action (or taking no action) was reasonable or not, given the state of knowledge on the virus. Thus, claimants would need to point to what steps the businesses took to protect its licensees and invitees, and whether there were additional procedures that could have been implemented to prevent the transmission, and whether those additional actions were reasonable in light of what was known about the virus. Intentional ignorance is not a defense – property owners have a duty to investigate known or potential hazards, including COVID-19.
Claimants in tort claims have the burden of proving causation. This usually means proving that the breach of duty was a “substantial contributing factor” in causing the claimant’s injury. In COVID-19 cases, the claimant will ultimately need to prove that the virus was contracted at that business as opposed to another source, which may be extremely difficult to do. Asymptomatic spread of COVID-19 is one of many challenges to proving the initial source of exposure. While some claimants will rely on contact tracing, that alone does not rule out alternative sources of COVID-19 exposure – any other place the person visited (markets, homes, their workplace), and exposure to family members and friends.
Notably, a large number of states are enacting legislation applicable to workers compensation claims related to COVID-19. This legislation establishes a rebuttable presumption that an employee who tests positive for COVID-19 contracted it in the course of employment, although some are limited to essential workers. A “rebuttable presumption” means that the burden of disproving causation is thrust upon the employer. While there are no similar rebuttable presumptions for personal injury and premise liability claimants at this time, it is an open question as to whether these presumptions can be used affirmatively in tort lawsuits, particularly in a situation where a worker brings COVID-19 into the home and sickens a family member or housemate.
If businesses can show that safety protocols were followed, this evidence can be used to defend these types of claims. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has set guidelines that should be followed as best practices to avoid COVID-19 liability claims. There is an abundance of state and local guidance on social distancing, use of masks and other measures to prevent the spread of the virus. With the vast amount of information available to the public on the risks of the virus and preventative measures, claimants will argue that businesses have enough information to safely operate Crafty plaintiff’s lawyers will likely seek out and find guidance that specifically supports their clients case. Business owners are advised to do the same for their respective industries, whether it be restaurants, offices or youth sports leagues.
Defenses to Consider in Defending COVID 19 Liability Claims
Statute of Limitations
The statute of limitations for in Massachusetts governing personal injury and premises liability cases places a time limit of three years within the date of the incident for filing the lawsuit. Lawsuits filed after the statute of limitations period may be dismissed as “time-barred.” Other states have similar statutes, although the specific timeframe may vary.
Modified Comparative Negligence Law
Some states, including Massachusetts, use a modified comparative negligence rule in personal injury cases, allowing plaintiffs to recover only if the defendant’s share of the blame was equal to or greater than their own. There are only a few exceptions allowing plaintiffs to recover if they were more than 51% at fault. Another important factor of this rule to consider is that if plaintiffs are found to be at fault, their damages are reduced by their allocated share of the blame. Did the visitor where a mask? Did they stay 6 feet apart from other individuals? Did they wash their hands and sanitize frequently? Were they placing their hands on their mouth and nose? These facts and circumstances are critical factors to consider when shifting the blame to the claimant.
Assumption of Risk Abolished in Massachusetts
Some jurisdictions allow a defendant in a personal injury action to raise an affirmative defense of assumption of risk, but that is abolished in Massachusetts as a defense in personal injury cases. In jurisdictions where this defense is allowed, instead of denying the allegations, defendants can assert that a plaintiff was aware of the risk when engaging in the activity or conduct, fully had knowledge of the consequences and willingly disregarded the risks or assumed the risks. Therefore, the defendant cannot be at fault for negligence and this serves as a complete bar to recovery.
Did a plaintiff sign a written liability waiver acknowledging and accepting risks? Enforceability of liability waivers as well as the exceptions to the enforceability of releases vary from state to state. While this only shows licensees and invitees were made aware of the risk, using such waivers in these COVID 19 claims is not a slam dunk defense.
We encourage businesses to consider these liability risks when resuming operations and to follow comprehensive procedures and CDC guidelines to mitigate the risks and protect licensees and invitees from the spread of the virus at these establishments. Our office can help businesses develop a plan specific to their business to mitigate the risks of liability from emerging claims related to COVID 19 and provide guidance and advocacy for defending such claims. Our team closely follows judicial, statutory, and regulatory developments related to the COVID-19 pandemic. For more detailed information, please contact Seta Accaoui.