Trials & Litigation

Are businesses liable to ill family members of workers who contract COVID-19?

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Do businesses have an obligation to those who have never been at a worksite? Courts have split on the issue, which will likely be raised in new lawsuits alleging that negligence led workers to become ill and pass on the COVID-19 virus to family members.

Reuters covered two lawsuits filed by workers’ family members and spoke with experts who said employers should brace for more litigation.

The lawsuits will be patterned after asbestos cases in which family members became ill after workers came home with asbestos fibers on their clothes.

One lawsuit, filed in August by the daughter of Esperanza Ugalde of Illinois, alleges that Ugalde died from COVID-19 that her father contracted at the Aurora Packing Co.’s meat processing plant.

The Kane County Chronicle had coverage of the lawsuit.

Lawyers think the Aurora Packing Co. case is the first wrongful death “take-home” lawsuit, according to Reuters.

A second lawsuit alleges that Miriam Alvarez Reynoso contracted COVID-19 from her husband, a parts assembler, and had “serious injuries to multiple organs.” Reynoso said she became sick while caring for her husband, who worked at Byrne & Schaefer Inc. in Lockport, Illinois.

The Herald-News had coverage.

Company owner Tim Byrne told Reuters that, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, company employees routinely wore masks because of dust and also wore gloves.

“He was sick before anyone else,” Byrne said of Reynoso’s husband. “It’s difficult to prove after the fact.”

The “causal chain” will be an issue in the cases, according to lawyers who spoke with Reuters. Plaintiffs will have to show that businesses failed to implement safety measures, which led a worker to get sick and to infect the family member. The plaintiff will have to show that the worker took precautions to prevent coming ill from other sources.

Successful plaintiffs in COVID-19 cases won’t be subject to the caps on liability that employees face under the workers’ compensation system, the article points out.

“Businesses should be very concerned about these cases,” said labor and employment attorney Tom Gies of Crowell & Moring, in an interview with Reuters.

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