On the not-so-distant horizon, a storm of litigation brews for employers who dismissed state and federal guidelines aimed at slowing the coronavirus spread. In the early days of COVID-19 awareness, adoption of mask-wearing and social distancing requirements was patchy, at best, as were company protocols to send sick workers home.
Now, families of workers who died from COVID-19 complications are suing employers for gross negligence surrounding the companies’ failure to protect their employees from the pandemic.
The Wall Street Journal reported that Tyson Foods, Inc., Walmart, Inc., and Safeway Inc., along with several healthcare facilities, face such lawsuits. Adding to the litigation mix, employees who contracted the virus but survived have filed lawsuits against their employers to recover their medical expenses and other damages.
Businesses across the country will anxiously watch these legal actions unfold as employees begin a slow-drip return to on-site work after months of telecommuting.
Coronavirus Relief Bill
While employers protest the allegations of negligence, they also cast a hopeful eye on a coronavirus relief bill revealed by U.S. Senate Republicans at the end of July.
The bill touts setting federal unemployment insurance at 70 percent of employees’ previous work income and proposes relief payments to individuals and couples—$1,200 and $2,400, respectively. The bill also includes a shield that would protect schools, doctors, and businesses from COVID-19-related lawsuits. An exception would exist for instances of gross negligence or willful misconduct.
Specifically, this bill would set a high bar for burden of proof for personal injury lawsuits related to coronavirus lawsuits against employers. It would also cap punitive damages for these legal actions.
Cases of employee injuries or deaths on the job typically work through employers’ worker’s compensation insurance, which covers medical bills and a percentage of workers’ wages, as well as disability insurance. However, if employers flagrantly violated state or federal guidelines to slow the spread of the coronavirus, we may see many lawsuits slipping around the employer-protection provisions in the Senate relief bill. Quite likely, many such cases will settle out of court.