Do Businesses Have Legal Liability for COVID-19 Exposure?
While Georgia businesses across sectors are now reopening, COVID-19 cases are also skyrocketing. This leaves many business owners worried not only about the health and safety of their staff and customers, but about their legal liability as well.
However, like so many aspects of the pandemic, business liability from coronavirus exposure continues to be a point of speculation, and the law is unclear on how it will play out.
To keep you up to date on this risk, we’ve distilled a recent law passed by the Georgia legislature and rounded up some example cases from around the country.
Georgia Limitations on COVID-19 Liability
At the end of its session, the Georgia Legislature passed Senate Bill 359, which shields companies from legal liability unless they show “gross negligence, willful and wanton misconduct, reckless infliction of harm, or intentional infliction of harm.”
The bill also creates a presumption that customers assume some risk of exposure, provided the business prints the following statement on a receipt or other ticket in at least a 10-point Arial font:
“Any person entering the premises waives all civil liability against this premises owner and operator for any injuries caused by the inherent risk associated with contracting COVID-19 at public gatherings, except for gross negligence, willful and wanton misconduct, reckless infliction of harm, or intentional infliction of harm, by the individual or entity of the premises.”
Alternatively, the business may post a sign at its entrance as follows, in at least 1-inch Arial font:
“Warning: Under Georgia law, there is no liability for an injury or death of an individual entering these premises if such injury or death results from the inherent risks of contracting COVID-19. You are assuming this risk by entering these premises.”
Gov. Kemp has yet to sign this bill. Nonetheless, we recommend that businesses use at least one of the warnings as stated above.
COVID-19 Case Studies
The following case studies also help offer some perspective on the current climate for business operations and assumed risk.
OSHA citation: Winder Nursing, Inc. After six employees at a nursing home were hospitalized, management failed to notify the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) within 24 hours, as required by federal regulations. OSHA issued a citation to the facility with a proposed fine of $6,506.
Lesson learned: If you have employees contract COVID-19, consult with counsel about whether you must notify OSHA.
Wrongful death of an employee: Walmart, Inc. An employee at an Illinois Walmart died from COVID-19. Instead of pursuing an employment injury claim, which would apply to accidental injuries, his estate alleged that Walmart acted deliberately, with “willful and wanton misconduct.” Allegations include that Walmart:
- Did not warn the employee about fellow associates who had notified management of their own COVID-19 symptoms
- Did not screen employees for COVID-19 symptoms
- Did not disinfect the store
- Did not provide employees with PPE
- Failed to implement or enforce social distancing guidelines
Additionally, the plaintiff sued the landlord, J2M – Evergreen, LLC, alleging they were negligent by:
- Not closing the Walmart
- Not cleaning or inspecting the store
- Failing to require Walmart take steps to prevent the spread of the coronavirus
- Not following social distancing guidelines
Another employee at the same store died from COVID-19 several days later.
Lesson learned: Comply with federal and Georgia requirements and guidelines regarding COVID-19.
Loss of alcohol license: bar in central Florida
After at least 13 employees and 28 patrons tested positive for COVID-19, a bar in central Florida lost its liquor license. A state health officer said that a bar, matching this bar’s description, is linked to 152 coronavirus cases. An inspector found that patrons weren’t socially distancing or following other rules meant to slow the spread of the virus.
Lesson learned: Enact and enforce requirements and guidelines regarding COVID-19.
Contact a Business Attorney Today
If you’re a business owner, it’s time to assess your risk in this challenging time. We can help you discuss the steps you’ll need to take while you work to operate your business as safely as possible. Schedule a free consultation today.