(Reuters) – U.S. companies with COVID-19 outbreaks face an emerging legal threat from allegations that workers have brought coronavirus home and infected relatives. A risk analysis firm said it could cost employers billions of dollars.
In the cases, items from asbestos litigation are borrowed to take away and liability limitations for workplace injuries are avoided, exposing businesses to costly pain and damage even though the plaintiff never set foot on their premises.
“Businesses should be very concerned about these cases,” said Tom Gies, a Crowell & Moring advocate for employers.
The lawsuit against Aurora alleges that Ricardo Ugalde was working “shoulder to shoulder” on the company’s processing line in April when Aurora knew a coronavirus outbreak had occurred at its facility and did not warn employees or take any measures to prevent infection had seized.
Aurora didn’t respond to a request for comment.
It is believed that between 7% and 9% of the roughly 200,000 U.S. COVID-19 deaths to date are due to take-away infections. Lawsuits could cost companies up to $ 21 billion if the death toll among Americans hits 300,000, according to Praedicat, a company that assesses risk for insurers.
Rob Reville, executive director of Praedicat, warns of a worst-case scenario, saying the cases could cost far less depending on how the judges judge the lawsuits.
The U.S. Workers Compensation System generally makes it difficult for workers to sue COVID-19. The system limits company liability and blocks costly lawsuits in return for quick payments to employees who are not at fault.
But Esperanza Ugalde was not an employee of Aurora, so her family can sue the company. Depending on the circumstances, a successful death can cause more than $ 1 million in damage.
Asbestos disputes have had takeaway cases for decades, and the courts have divided whether a company has any obligation to members of the public who have never been on their premises.
In 2013, a California jury awarded Rose-Marie Griggs $ 27.3 million in damages and punitive damages after she contracted mesothelioma, which her attorneys believe was caused by asbestos fibers found on her workwear in the 1950s man at the time, for whom insulation was installed, a subsidiary of Owens-Illinois Inc.
The company appealed and two sides reached a private settlement before the appeal was negotiated.
“CAUSE CHAIN” COMPETITION
Lawyers for both plaintiffs and corporations said successful cases require a strong “chain of causation” linking the sick family member to the worker and then to the company and the company’s alleged failure to take security measures.
Miriam Alvarez Reynoso sued Byrne & Schaefer Inc, an electrical component manufacturer in Lockport, Illinois. The company’s alleged negligence resulted in her contracting COVID-19 and suffering “serious multiple organ injuries”.
Reynoso’s lawsuit says she became infected while caring for her husband, Servando Reynoso, a parts assembly maker for the company who came home sick on April 8, ignoring employees who said it was COVID-19 Having symptoms.
Company owner Tim Byrne said his five employees were routinely wearing masks before the pandemic to protect themselves from dust and regularly used gloves.
“He was sick before anyone else,” said Byrne. “It’s difficult to prove afterwards.”
Lawyers said employers are unlikely to be willing to settle the cases for significant amounts until the claims are reviewed in the court system.
Peter Wozniak, a Barnes & Thornburg attorney who represents employers, said the cases would examine juries ‘attitudes towards plaintiffs’ conduct, who will need to demonstrate they have protected themselves from other sources of infection.
“Do you always wear a mask? Are you staying six feet away Are you washing your hands? “, Asked he. “It will be interesting and unpredictable about people’s attitudes towards individual responsibility.”
The best protection for entrepreneurs is to take and document measures to protect workers.
“If they had acted wisely and Aurora had done these things before Esperanza’s death, I don’t know if I would have taken the case,” said Bridget Duignan, Ugalde’s daughter.
“But they didn’t do anything.”
Reporting by Tom Hals; Arrangement by Noeleen Walder and Daniel Wallis