Can You or Your Practice Be Sued for Exposing Patients to the Coronavirus?

Many states across the country have started or are preparing to reopen their economies, but businesses large and small are worried about sending their employees back to work amid a global pandemic. The same is true of healthcare providers as well.

What happens if you start seeing patients again only to discover that they may have been exposed to the coronavirus while under your care? Could you be held liable for unintentionally spreading the virus?

Business owners across the country are preparing for a potential onslaught of lawsuits as the country starts to inch towards normalcy, but what does the new normal look like?

The Decision to Reopen

Deciding whether to reopen for business can be complicated for many managers and CEOs. Everyone is anxious to earn a living again, but at what cost? While many states are loosening their stay-at-home orders, business owners have to decide for themselves how they are going to navigate this new reality with little help from the states.

The Occupational Health and Safety Administration has released clear guidelines to help businesses reopen safely amid the pandemic. If you own or oversee an independent medical facility, you’ll need to make sure your practice complies with these guidelines as well. Going back to work isn’t just about protecting your employees from the virus. You also have to worry about protecting your customers or patients, suppliers, contractors, and anyone else that may step inside your business.

The decision to reopen may depend on a number of different factors, such as:

  • Do staffers, customers, patients, and other individuals have access to personal protection equipment?
  • Can workers do their jobs while staying at least six feet apart from one another?
  • Will enough customers come back into the store or office during the pandemic to warrant reopening?
  • Do your customers, employees, and suppliers feel safe coming back to work?
  • Will reopening your business or practice help the local community get back on its feet?

If you’re considering whether to reopen your business or practice, make sure you know the answers to these questions ahead of time.

What Are the Legal Implications of Reopening During the Pandemic?

Essentially, business owners are worried about getting sued for accidentally infecting their workers, customers, or partners with the virus. The legal community is slowly adapting to the new reality of the pandemic, but no one knows exactly how these cases will play out in court.

According to the National Law Review, plaintiffs looking to sue must prove in court that they contracted the coronavirus at a specific location, i.e. at a certain place of business. Yet, proving the source of infection in court may ultimately be impossible. The virus seems to be omnipresent, so identifying the exact time and place of transmission seems like a fool’s errand.

However, if a worker spends most, if not all, of their time at their job only to go home to an empty house, they may be able to prove that their employer was responsible for the infection, considering the chances of them contracting the virus anywhere else would be extremely low.

For the most part, employers may be shielded from potential lawsuits thanks to the opaque nature of the virus.

Business Owners Fight for Protections

Members of Congress and the federal government are looking for ways to protect business owners from potential coronavirus-related lawsuits. The next round of coronavirus relief funding will likely include legal protections for business owners, especially if they are feeling pressure to reopen for business in their home states.

Lawyers and business owners are calling for some type of safe harbor, which means that if businesses comply with the latest guidelines from OSHA and the CDC, they shouldn’t be held legally responsible if someone gets sick on their watch.

Yet, labor unions and activists say this could easily spell disaster for those going back to work. If business owners know that they can’t be sued, they may fail to protect their workers on the job. Creating a safe harbor could easily lead to negligence across a number of different industries.

What About Workers?

If a worker gets sick and they can’t sue their employer, what are they supposed to do?

Most employees should be covered by workers’ compensation laws, depending on where they live. However, in most cases, the burden of proof falls on the employee. That means workers will have to prove they contracted the virus on the job, so the blame falls on the employer, but this may be difficult to prove.

Several states are working on updating these laws to make sure workers stay safe amid the pandemic. For example, California recently updated these laws so that the burden of proof falls on the employer. If an essential worker in the state comes down with the virus, it is now assumed that they contracted it on the job. Businesses will now have to prove that the worker didn’t contract the virus on the job.

If someone gets sick with the virus after returning to work, they should apply for worker’s comp through the state website. Hopefully, lawmakers and the legal community will find a way to protect business owners from frivolous lawsuits, while making sure workers do not put their health at risk just to earn a living.

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