As the COVID-19 virus has swept the nation, lawyers are being asked whether individuals or businesses can be held liable for failing to prevent infections. Some businesses have denied employees an opportunity to work from home while asking them to sign a “voluntary” waiver of liability for infections they contract by coming to work. Since employees who fail to sign are laid off, conditioning a paycheck on the risk of acquiring an infection might be seen as coercive rather than voluntary.
Whether employers will be deemed negligent for denying work-at-home opportunities, and whether they can protect themselves from liability by conditioning future employment on a liability release, are open questions. Party-divided senators are debating whether federal legislation should protect employers from liability or whether states should be entitled to decide what has historically been a question of state law.
A clearer case of liability is posed by businesses that fail to protect patrons from infections. When outbreaks can be traced to infected servers at a restaurant, for example, the restaurant may be liable for allowing servers to handle food or interact with customers without wearing masks or gloves. How to assure the safety of patrons is a question that will grow in importance when the economy begins to reopen.
The most obvious cases of infectious disease negligence involve nursing homes and other care facilities that fail to protect patients from the spread of COVID-19. A nursing home in Hayward, California has been threatened with legal action after 25 staff members and 41 residents tested positive for a novel coronavirus infection. Nine residents died from the virus. Attorneys are investigating allegations that staff members were compelled to work despite having symptoms of a COVID-19 infection.
Nursing Home Negligence and COVID-19
There’s no doubt that nursing homes and similar healthcare facilities are in a tough position. USA TODAY reports that a minimum of “2,300 long-term care facilities in 37 states have reported positive cases of COVID-19” and that 3,000 residents have died. The actual numbers are likely higher, as some states (including Florida) did not answer USA TODAY’s request for data.
At least 127 of 163 elderly residents at a nursing home near Richmond, Virginia have fallen ill with COVID-19. At least 35 of its staff members have tested positive for the virus, leading to a staff shortage that may further endanger residents. The facility’s medical director says the nursing home was taken by surprise, although the risk of a global outbreak was widely reported by February.
Since infections spread rapidly and infected individuals are not always symptomatic, nursing homes that exercise reasonable care to protect their residents might still experience a coronavirus outbreak. Yet USA TODAY found that even before the pandemic, 75% of nursing homes had been “cited for failing to properly monitor and control infections in the past three years.”
Questions Experts Will Need to Answer
Elderly patients and individuals with compromised immune systems are particularly vulnerable to life-threatening conditions caused by the COVID-19 virus. Whether a nursing home is responsible for the spread of COVID-19 in a vulnerable population may require experts to answer difficult questions, including:
- What are the costs and benefits of isolating vulnerable patients during a pandemic?
- Would prudent management require staff members to wear masks and gloves during all interactions with patients?
- Should nursing homes stop admitting new residents to reduce population density and further the goal of social distancing?
- What precautions should management take to assure that nurses and other staff members are not infected?
- Should management have recognized the symptoms of a potential infection and sent potentially infected staff members home until they received a negative test result?
- Did the facility take all necessary steps to disinfect rooms and common areas where the virus might linger?
Similar questions arise with regard to other confined settings, including jails, cruise ships, and hospitals. While preventing the spread of an infectious disease can be extraordinarily difficult, expert witnesses can determine whether certain elementary precautions — such as preventing a person with a cough from working until the employee tests negative for COVID-19 — should have been taken.
Infectious Disease Experts Making a Difference
Expert witnesses are likely to testify about COVID-19 in a variety of contexts. Lawsuits in Wisconsin, for example, allege that the failure to move the April 11 election disenfranchised voters who did not visit a crowded polling place for fear that they would acquire the virus and expose vulnerable family members to it. Infectious disease specialists and public health experts will likely be called upon to testify that those fears were legitimate.
Expert witnesses also assisted the ACLU in bringing a lawsuit seeking the release of four migrants detained by ICE in a crowded facility. Expert evidence established that the migrants had “medical conditions that make them highly vulnerable to serious illness and death if infected with COVID-19.”
The lawsuit contended that twelve detainees and one staff member had been infected with COVID-19 and that staff did not regularly wear gloves or masks to prevent the transmission of the virus. The lawsuit prompted ICE to release the detainees.
Infectious disease experts will continue play a vital role in informing the public as the pandemic continues to threaten lives. In the foreseeable future, they are likely to play critical roles as expert witnesses in litigation that holds negligent parties responsible for the preventable spread of this deadly disease.