As Yakima County begins to allow businesses to re-open, I have often been asked if a business could be held legally liable (at fault) if a customer or consumer is exposed to COVID-19 and gets sick. The short answer: it’s complicated.
In Washington State, for a business to be held liable a person must show negligence – that the business did not exercise a reasonable level of care in preventing the spread of COVID-19. For example, a restaurant may not require its workers to wear masks and allow more customers to dine-in under the guidelines. Even if a business may have been negligent, a person must also show that the negligence caused the harm. From a legal perspective, it is difficult to prove that a business negligently caused the spread of the virus resulting in illness. Due to a lack of contact tracing, the widespread nature of the virus, and the fact that many people are going into multiple businesses each week, it is nearly impossible to pinpoint the origin of the illness.
Making it even more difficult is the fact that many states have passed immunity laws. At least 12 states have passed laws that shield businesses from liability unless the injured person can show “gross negligence” – the “lack of slight diligence or care” or “a conscious, voluntary act or omission in reckless disregard of a legal duty and of the consequences to another party.” To date, Washington has not passed such a law. There has been talk about passing a law at the federal level that would provide immunity to many businesses, but currently none exists for negligently exposing consumers to COVID-19.
Another obstacle is that many businesses – from nursing homes, to hair stylists, to schools – are attempting to escape legal liability through the use of waivers. A waiver precludes a person from suing if they get sick or die after being exposed to COVID-19. It’s not clear if these waivers will be enforced by Washington courts.
The lawyers at Abeyta Nelson expect to see many cases filed against nursing homes for failing to protect their residents from COVID-19. A prime example is the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Washington that made early headlines during the pandemic. By mid-March 2020, 81 of their 120 residents tested positive for the virus, leading to 34 deaths. It is inevitable that lawsuits against nursing homes will be filed.
While pursuing a claim for exposure to COVID-19 is difficult, it is not impossible. The lawyers at Abeyta Nelson have a reputation for taking on, and winning, difficult cases. If you believe you have been negligently exposed to COVID-19, call Abeyta Nelson Injury Law right away. There is never a charge to discuss your questions with us and no fee unless we win your case. The sooner we are involved, the more help we can provide.
-blog written by attorney David Abeyta, Abeyta Nelson Injury Law