As businesses across the United States are preparing to reopen following a pandemic-induced shutdown, many are worrying about pending coronavirus lawsuits, from both customers and employees.
Businesses Concerned About Avoiding Liability
Businesses may have to make difficult decisions about how to keep running while protecting workers and customers and avoiding possible liability. And legal experts say that there may be no existing strategy to combat lawsuits resulting from businesses reopening amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“Businesses all over the country, but especially small businesses, are pretty worried about liability risks,” said Harold Kim, president of the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform. “There is no playbook for this. Litigation is particularly damaging to Main Street because the level of potential damages can close down your doors.”
Kim said there are some precedents, such as class-action litigation resulting from the Great Recession of 2008 and asbestos class actions in the 1990s.
“But the level of litigation here in the wake of coronavirus could overshadow all of that,” he added, comparing the capital and infrastructure building up around coronavirus litigation to drinking water out of a fire hose.
Anecdotally, lawyers have said that they have seen more advertising from litigators, more lawsuit lending, and more funding from investors, including hedge funds, to provide capital to law firms pursuing coronavirus lawsuits.
Burford Capital, a litigation finance firm, said that it expects there to be a “heightened level of engagement as firms and their clients head into a potential downturn and also come to grips with the economic damage inflicted by the coronavirus.”
Current Coronavirus Lawsuits
Over 1,000 coronavirus lawsuits have been filed across the country. However, only 45 of these cases relate to medical claims.
On May 19, a group of McDonald’s employees in Chicago filed a class-action lawsuit accusing the chain of failing to adopt government safety guidelines to protect its workers during the outbreak. The lawsuit specifically alleges that McDonald’s has not provided sufficient amounts of hand sanitizer, masks, and gloves. It further claims that the company failed to contact staff when an employee tested positive for COVID-19.
The lawsuit is asking the court to issue an injunction that would compel the fast-food chain to stop making employees reuse masks, require customers to wear face coverings, and inform workers when another staffer contracts COVID-19. Additionally, three McDonald’s workers have already filed administrative actions with the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health alleging unsafe conditions.
Walmart and meat producers JBS SA and Tyson Foods have each been sued by the families of workers who died of coronavirus complications. And in April, a worker advocacy group filed a lawsuit that accuses Smithfield Foods Inc. of creating a “public nuisance” by not protecting employees at a plant in Milan, MO.
Other recent coronavirus lawsuits relate to jobs that were lost because of pandemic shutdowns. Former Hooters employees have filed a class-action lawsuit alleging that the restaurant chain violated a federal employment law known as the WARN Act, which requires advanced notice before mass layoffs that do not involve a plant closing.
There have also been a number of consumer class-action lawsuits against organizations like Live Nation and Major League Baseball over refunds. Additionally, there have been disputes involving companies that have discovered that business interruption insurance largely excludes pandemics.
Lawmakers May Propose Litigation Shields
In this climate, lawmakers have been weighing the desire for a broader reopening of the economy against concerns about safety and litigation. Pres. Trump has proposed shielding businesses from lawsuits, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said that the issue would be a priority in future coronavirus relief bills.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy claimed that the leaders would start with liability protections for businesses and doctors: “Liability protections would be the No. 1 thing I would look at. No bill will pass without it.”
Most of the proposals on the federal and state levels focus on limiting liability from customers, though lawyers anticipate class-action lawsuits from employees for hazard pay or other benefits, along with lawsuits related to terminations and severance payments.
One of the most significant concerns is the possibility of exposure claims against businesses, schools, or places of worship that do not take reasonable precautions to provide a safe workplace, as a barrage of industry groups are pushing for liability protections, including manufacturers, restaurants, casinos, and hospitals.
A recent survey found that 53 percent of employees in the United States want their workplaces to place a limit on the size of workplace gatherings, 47 percent want testing for all workers, and 41 percent want employees to be required to wear masks.
New York Stock Exchange Instituting New Protocols
In an attempt to stem off possible coronavirus lawsuits, the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) imposed new protocols when it reopened its trading floor on May 26. It had been closed since March 23.
The rules limit how many traders can be in the building. In addition, nobody is supposed to take public transportation to work. Medical personnel will take everyone’s temperature and require them to answer questionnaires. Traders will have to wear masks, and physical distancing will be mandatory.
Additionally, traders who go into the building will also have to sign a waiver. While the NYSE has not made the waiver public, The Wall Street Journal reported that it is an acknowledgment that traders returning to the floor could result in their “contracting COVID-19, respiratory failure, death, and transmitting COVID-19 to family or household members and others who may also suffer these effects.”
NYSE President Stacey Cunningham said the waiver is a necessary precaution because traders on the floor are not employees of the Exchange. “It’s an acknowledgment to follow our protections since we don’t have the ability to tell traders they can’t come in.”
GWC’s Commitment to Our Clients
At GWC Injury Lawyers LLC, we know that these are difficult, frightening times for every American. It is important that we work together to overcome the unique challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic. Rest assured, however, that GWC’s goal remains unchanged: to continue to be reliable, available, and responsive to our clients. If you need help, contact GWC today to schedule a free, no-obligation consultation with one of our Chicago personal injury lawyers. You can call our office at (312) 464-1234 or click here to chat with a representative at any time.