When essential workers continue to clock in while the rest of the world is on shutdown, this can have serious implications for their families as well. Worker Compensation laws in California, for example, have been amended to create a “rebuttable presumption” that an essential worker who contracts COVID-19 should be found to have contracted it in his or her workplace. That puts the burden on the employer to prove otherwise. As one might imagine, the meatpacking industry has become a something burger for such claims. Over 4,500 Tyson Foods workers have alleged safety violations against their employer in one such case.
A new trend has emerged now where businesses are also being confronted with lawsuits on behalf of employee’s family members who have contracted the virus from those employees. In one such case out of Illinois, the daughter of Esperanza Ugalde has alleged a wrongful death action on behalf of her mother stating Mrs. Ugalde contracted the virus from her husband, a worker at Aurora Packing Company, Inc. In the suit, it is alleged that Mr. Ugalde was exposed to the virus due to unsafe working conditions. Noting he worked “shoulder to shoulder” with other workers at the meatpacking plant, in spite of a known outbreak of COVID-19, the complaint alleges negligence on the part of the employer for its failure to warn workers of the danger, failing to take preventative measures, including providing Personal Protective Equipment and failing to disinfect the facility and failing to implement an effective sick leave policy.
This theory of liability is comparable to that found in some asbestos litigation cases. Simply put, the employer had a duty to protect against the risk, the employer breached that duty, employees were harmed by that breach, and it was reasonably foreseeable that, given the type of harm involved, a virus here, it would be passed to family members or to other members in the community. In a comparable asbestos situation, a wife was awarded over $27 million in damages by a California jury when she contracted mesothelioma from asbestos fibers on her husband’s work clothes.
The best line of defense for businesses is to establish proper protocols and safety procedures for workers. By following CDC guidelines, OSHA regulations, along with any and all state and federal laws concerning worker safety, businesses will be in a better position to defend against claims that they acted negligently in handling COVID-19 in their workspaces. More important still, is that by following such commonsense guidelines, lives will be saved.