Nationally, a number of employers are now facing wrongful death lawsuits for allegedly failing to protect their employees from COVID-19 exposure. Two of these lawsuits arise from meatpacking plants--Tyson Foods, Inc., pending in the Northern District of Texas, and JBS USA, pending in state court in Philadelphia. Walmart also faces a wrongful death lawsuit arising from one of its retail stores near Chicago. In Ohio, the inpatient care center, Generations Behavioral Health, is the target of a wrongful death suit filed by the family of one of its nurses.
In each of these pending cases, the families of workers who died of COVID-19 allege that employers were grossly negligent when they required employees to work during the pandemic without appropriate safeguards in place or without following public health guidelines. As the number of confirmed infections continues to climb, these pending cases serve as a stark reminder of the importance of having a written COVID-19 preparedness and response plan in place at this time.
Some organizations have turned to liability waivers to protect against future lawsuits such as these wrongful death suits. The Ohio House of Representatives recently passed a bill to temporarily provide immunity to health care and emergency service providers, and to include COVID-19 as an “occupational disease” under Ohio Workers’ Compensation law. The bill was referred to the Ohio Senate’s Judiciary Committee.
However, employers should also proactively mitigate their employees’ risk of exposure and their organization’s risk of liability, and having a written COVID-19 preparedness and response plan, outlining best practices for workplace safety from the CDC and OSHA, is likely the most effective way to do so. Using current public health guidelines to establish such precautions in a COVID-19 preparedness and response plan is likely the best way to create a safe work environment with reduced risk of COVID-19 infection. In addition, having a COVID-19 preparedness and response plan serves to demonstrate the employer’s commitment to protecting employees’ health and safety during the pandemic.
If you need assistance implementing a COVID-19 preparedness and response plan, please contact a member of our Labor & Employment Law Practice Group.