Supply-chain businesses that are appropriately characterized as “essential” have remained open for the delivery of critical supplies while everyone else has been told to close up shop and stay home. Now essential-business employees are contracting COVID-19 and filing suit. Following up on our earlier piece — “Is a Violation of a COVID-19 Order the Basis For Civil Liability?” — it is important to recognize that government directives, oftentimes couched as “recommendations,” can come to define what it means to provide a reasonably safe workplace that protects employees from COVID-19. While common law negligence defenses consider the reasonableness of conduct, these directives will likely become the standard.
The cases that have been filed are overwhelmingly premised upon the timeless negligence construct. The negligence construct, simply put, imposes a duty to act as a reasonable person would under the circumstances. Nonetheless, while the negligence construct lives in the ordinary world of “reasonableness,” infection-control guidance lives in the rapidly developing world of the science of COVID-19. Guidance on seemingly basic questions, such as the methods of transmission (e.g., personal contact, mucus membrane only, airborne transmission) or even the virus’s shelf life on different surfaces, of particular interest packaging and material handling equipment, can change by the day. All of this provides challenges for the supply-side business looking to protect its workforce.
Reprinted courtesy of White and Williams LLP attorneys James Burger, Robert Devine and Douglas Weck
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