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Here Come the COVID-19 Lawsuits

Toby Graham /
money transposed over building with columns

Pedro Zuniga was scared. He knew he could be exposing himself to COVID-19 by showing up at the Safeway distribution center where he worked. Some of his colleagues were already displaying symptoms. But he also knew that if he didn’t come in, he could lose his job.

So Zuniga and a few co-workers filed a complaint with management. Nothing changed. The company continued to demand workers come in, and even advised against wearing protective masks.

Soon, Zuniga fell ill. He went to the hospital, tested positive, and was moved to the ICU. He died several days later.

Zuniga’s widow is now taking Safeway to court.

She’s one of the hundreds of plaintiffs suing employers for allegedly not doing enough to keep workers safe from COVID-19.

The Wall Street Journal reports:

“Walmart Inc., Safeway Inc., Tyson Foods Inc. and some health-care facilities have been sued for gross negligence or wrongful death since the coronavirus pandemic began unfolding in March. Employees’ loved ones contend the companies failed to protect workers from the deadly virus and should compensate their family members as a result. Workers who survived the virus also are suing to have medical bills, future earnings and other damages paid out.

In responding to the lawsuits, employers have said they took steps to combat the virus, including screening workers for signs of illness, requiring they wear masks, sanitizing workspaces and limiting the number of customers inside stores. Some point out that it is impossible to know where or how their workers contracted Covid-19, particularly as it spreads more widely across the country.”

The article presents several stories, including Zuniga’s, that highlight the tragic human costs of workplace exposure to COVID-19, as well as the difficult question of liability for it. Courts have historically favored employers in these sorts of disputes, but—like so many things these days—cases such as Zuniga’s are largely unprecedented.

What makes the “first wave” of coronavirus litigation so complicated are the circumstances of the pandemic:

“Employers rarely are found liable for employee deaths tied to the workplace. That’s because the legal bar for proving fault is high, and because states often restrict such complaints to their workers’ compensation systems, which typically limit payouts to a portion of a worker’s salary, coverage of their medical bills and disability compensation.

Legal experts say the coronavirus pandemic could change how such cases play out. Early lawsuits on behalf of sickened workers center on whether employers adhered to state and federal guidelines for reducing the spread of the virus, which evolved rapidly in March and April, especially on mask use, and at times conflicted with each other.”

Read “Families File First Wave of Covid-19 Lawsuits Against Companies Over Worker Deaths.”

Disputes over safety concerns aren’t the only kind of pandemic-related litigation out there.

Our friends at Fisher Phillips recently wrote about “a substantial number of lawsuits” alleging “employer impropriety using COVID-19 as a factual backdrop.” That is, workers are claiming that their employers used the virus as pretext for unlawful discrimination and wrongful termination. For example:

“In Fawaz Kazi v. The Fullman Firm, a former employee filed a lawsuit in California state court claiming religious discrimination. In support of his claims, the employee alleged that he attended community prayer sessions at his mosque each Friday. When the employee’s mosque ceased its Friday community prayer sessions due to COVID-19, the employee began praying at the workplace, which was witnessed by a member of management. Shortly thereafter, the employer terminated his employment for purportedly pretextual reasons.”

The attorneys write that companies should prepare for potential COVID-19-related litigation—whatever form it may take—as the number of cases “will only increase with time.” To that end, they encourage employers to familiarize themselves with the themes and risk factors these sorts of lawsuits share. You can read the full article here.

Don’t let COVID-19 jeopardize the safety and health of your workers—or put your company at risk. Protect your business, employees, and reputation with KPA’s COVID-19 Safety Programs.

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