U.S. companies with COVID-19 outbreaks face an emerging legal threat from allegations that workers have brought coronavirus home and infected relatives. A risk analysis firm said it could cost employers billions of dollars.
Esperanza Ugalde’s daughter of Illinois filed what lawyers believe is the first unlawful death lawsuit in August. She claimed her mother died of COVID-19, which her father contracted at Aurora Packing Co’s meat processing facility.
In the cases, items from asbestos litigation are borrowed to take away and liability limitations for work accidents are avoided, exposing companies to costly pain and damage even though the complainant never set foot on their premises.
“Businesses should be very concerned about these cases,” said Tom Gies, a Crowell & Moring advocate for employers.
The lawsuit against Aurora alleges that Ricardo Ugalde was working “shoulder to shoulder” on the company’s processing line in April when Aurora knew a coronavirus outbreak had occurred at its facility and did not warn employees or take any steps to prevent infection had seized.
Aurora didn’t respond to a request for comment.
It is believed that between 7% and 9% of the roughly 200,000 US COVID-19 deaths to date are due to take-away infections, and lawsuits could cost businesses up to $ 21 billion if the number of American deaths is increased 300,000, according to Praedicat, a company that assesses risk for insurers.
Rob Reville, executive director of Praedicat, warns of a worst-case scenario, saying the cases could cost far less depending on how the judges judge the lawsuits.
The U.S. Workers Compensation System generally makes it difficult for workers to sue COVID-19. The system limits company liability and blocks costly lawsuits in return for quick payments to employees who are not at fault.
But Esperanza Ugalde was not an employee of Aurora, so her family can sue the company. Depending on the circumstances, a successful death can cause more than $ 1 million in damage.
Asbestos disputes have had takeaway cases for decades, and the courts have divided whether a company has any obligation to members of the public who have never been on their premises.
In 2013, a California jury awarded Rose-Marie Griggs $ 27.3 million in damages and punitive damages after contracting mesothelioma, which her attorneys believe was caused by asbestos fibers found on her workwear in the 1950s man at the time, for whom insulation was installed, a subsidiary of Owens-Illinois Inc.
The company appealed and two sides reached a private settlement before the appeal was negotiated.
Deny the “causal chain”
Lawyers for both complainants and corporations said successful cases require a strong “chain of causation” linking the sick family member to the worker and then to the company and the company’s alleged failure to take security measures.
Miriam Alvarez Reynoso sued Byrne & Schaefer Inc, an electrical components manufacturer in Lockport, Ill., For negligence on the part of the company that resulted in her contracting COVID-19 and suffering “serious multiple organ injuries.”
Reynoso’s lawsuit says she got infected while caring for her husband, Servando Reynoso, a parts maker for the company, who came home sick on April 8th. It lists 18 categories of suspected deficiencies from Byrne & Schaefer, including failure to clean work areas and ignoring employees who reported having COVID-19 symptoms.
Company owner Tim Byrne said his five employees routinely wore masks before the pandemic to protect themselves from dust and regularly used gloves.
“He was sick before anyone else,” said Byrne. “It’s hard to prove afterwards.”
Lawyers said employers would likely be unwilling to settle the cases for significant amounts until the claims were reviewed in the court system.
Peter Wozniak, a Barnes & Thornburg attorney who represents employers, said the cases would test juries’ attitudes towards the behavior of complainants who need to demonstrate they have protected themselves from other sources of infection.
“Do you always wear a mask? Stay six feet away? Wash your hands,” he said. “It will be interesting and unpredictable about people’s attitudes towards individual responsibility.”
The best protection for entrepreneurs is to take and document measures to protect workers.
“If they had acted wisely and Aurora had done these things before Esperanza’s death, I don’t know if I would have taken the case,” said Bridget Duignan, Ugalde’s daughter.
“But they didn’t do anything.”