Nurse Practitioner Venise Jean-Baptiste recently filed a lawsuit against Larkin Community Hospital in South Miami for intentionally exposing her to COVID-19 and failing to adhere to the latest safety standards. As one of the first cases of its kind, the outcome of the suit could have major implications for the rest of the medical community and business leaders trying to curb the spread of the virus.
If you have been exposed to unsafe working conditions or believe your employers are putting your health at risk, learn the logistics behind the case and how it’s likely to play out in court.
No Face Masks Allowed
While working at the facility in South Florida back in March, Jean-Baptiste says she asked her boss to let her and her colleagues wear face masks on the floor as they interacted with patients; however, the managers denied her request, a clear violation of the CDC’s safety guidelines.
According to court documents, Jean-Baptiste says she repeatedly tried to convince the hospital’s medical director, Dr. Joseph R. Piperato, that staff needed access to PPE and testing for COVID-19, but her requests went unanswered.
Looking at the official complaint, Piperato, who is also listed as a defendant, responded to Jean-Baptiste’s concerns by saying that the staff would not be tested because the hospital would have to shut down for two weeks if anyone tested positive.
Jean-Baptiste says shortly after her requests for PPE and coronavirus testing were denied, the medical director attended an event in Miami Beach with thousands of partygoers and returned to work soon after with a “pronounced cough.”
Again, the nurse practitioner insisted that Piperato get tested after his symptoms appeared to be getting worse, but she says the medical director responded by saying it was just “tickle in my throat,” and that she needed to “mind your own business.”
The next day Piperto showed up to work with an intense cough. According to court documents, after Jean-Baptiste expressed concerns about his health, he coughed right into her face and said, “Well, if I have it, now you have it too. Now, leave me alone.”
Jean-Baptiste also says that she and her son started to show symptoms within days of the alleged incident. Soon after, the nurse practitioner was hospitalized with the coronavirus for weeks. She remembers calling her family, feeling terrified.
“I called my family and said, ‘This is what I want you to do with my son … just in case I don’t make it, because I don’t think I’m going to make it,’” Jean-Baptiste said.
Now, she’s suing Piperato and the facility for negligence and deliberately exposing her and her family to the virus. She’s seeking hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages to cover medical bills she has incurred since contracting the disease back in March.
John Leighton, a Miami attorney at Leighton Law that’s representing Jean-Baptiste, commented on the case:
“If you have a business making decisions based on dollars and cents, you deliberately don’t test people because you’re concerned if you get a positive test, it’s going to have to close. We’ll never know how many innocent people — patients, staff and members of the community — were exposed to COVID-19 because of the recklessness of this clinic.”
Proving Negligence in Court
Filing suit against the facility is one thing, but winning the case may be tricky, considering Jean-Baptiste and her lawyer will have to prove in court that she contracted the virus at the facility, which can be nearly impossible for some individuals.
However, the case lists all the actions Jean-Baptiste took to protect herself on the job, which help support her claim.
As John Leighton said, “My client had repeatedly asked the hospital to develop protocols, but she was slapped down for her persistence in being protective of the staff and patients. And her reward was being infected with COVID-19.”
Larkin Community Hospital is pushing back against the suit. A representative for the company stated, “The allegations set forth in the complaint are unfounded and will be aggressively defended,” adding that preventive measures at the office included symptom checks and the availability of PPE.
But that wasn’t enough to protect Jean-Baptiste and her family from the virus.
Healthcare companies and businesses of all sizes have been pleading with state and federal governments to shield them from what they see as a potential tidal wave of pandemic-related lawsuits. These companies say that they need to know that they won’t be sued in court if one of their employees or customers gets infected with the virus on their property, as long as they did their best to adhere to the latest safety guidelines.
The first challenge for plaintiffs looking to sue is that they need to prove they contracted the virus on company property, which means establishing a link between unsafe working conditions and personal health.
“That is very tricky in these cases,” said Robert Rabin, a Stanford law professor who specializes in personal injury lawsuits. “You’re exposed to other people, family, maybe friends, if you take the train to work, if you go shopping. You have to show it’s more likely than not that the infection took place at work.”
Nurses and healthcare workers tend to be more at risk of contracting the virus than other types of employees due to the nature of their jobs, which can ease the burden of proof.
Julius Young, an Oakland attorney who represents employees in compensation cases said, “If you worked in a hospital or a nursing home where an outbreak occurred, it’s easier (to prove) than at a grocery store. But it’s still time-consuming.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is hoping to get a provision that would protect businesses from negligence-related lawsuits into the next round of COVID-19 relief funding, but it’s still not clear when that would happen or what the provision would entail.
If you believe that you have been exposed to the virus due to negligence, you may have a case in court, but you will need to prove that you contracted the disease at work. Visit the National Employment Law Project to learn more about your rights.