US workers unleash a wave of COVID-19 negligence lawsuits

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Major employers across the US are facing a wave of lawsuits filed by workers claiming they contracted the novel coronavirus as a result of their employer's negligence – a trend that's sparking debate over whether Congress should grant businesses liability protections during the epidemic.

In the US employers are “rarely … found liable for employee deaths tied to the workplace,” both because there's a high legal bar for finding fault and because states frequently limit such complaints to employee compensation systems, which usually restrict payments based on the worker's salary or medical bills.

However, legal experts say the US' coronavirus epidemic could reverse that trend, because the early round of liability lawsuits filed against employers are focused on whether employers followed state and federal guidance for combatting the virus' spread, such as the use of face masks and physical distancing.

According to the experts, employers that failed to adhere to the guidance potentially could be found liable in court if their employees contract the coronavirus.

Norma Zuniga filed one such lawsuit against Safeway and its parent company, Albertsons Companies, on behalf of her husband Pedro Zuniga, who died on 13 April from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Pedro worked in a Safeway distribution center in California. According to Paul Matiasic, a lawyer representing the Zuniga family, Pedro and other workers complained to their supervisors that their work environment wasn't safe, as some employees were still coming into work while they were sick.

On March 20, the company posted a memo titled "Coronavirus Risks: Fact vs Fiction," which stated, "If you are healthy, a mask will not protect you from the respiratory drops an infected person coughs out. Open areas of the mask can let those drops in."

Pedro went to a hospital and tested positive for the coronavirus on 4 April. Providers moved Pedro into the ICU the next day, and placed him on a ventilator and into a medically induced coma. He died eight days later.

The lawsuit claims that Safeway failed to follow guidance issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) on 9 March that called for sick workers to be isolated. The lawsuit also contends the company misled its workers when it claimed that wearing masks wouldn't protect them from the coronavirus.

Safeway denied the claims, saying that, as of 20 March, neither guidelines from the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) nor the state of California recommended wearing masks. Safeway also said state officials inspected the facility on 15 April and found no violations of COVID-19 guidelines.

Walmart is also facing lawsuits, including one filed by the family of a worker who died from COVID-19 and another from a part-time employee who survived the disease.

Wando Evans, who worked overnight stocking shelves and doing maintenance at a Walmart outside Chicago, told his supervisors he had COVID-19 symptoms, but management "just put him back to work," according to Tony Kalogerakos, an attorney representing Evans' family. Evans' symptoms worsened two days later, and he was sent home. Two days after that, he was found dead in his home.

Evans' family claims Walmart didn't follow CDC or OSHA guidelines, putting employees at risk.

Peggy Cross, a part-time employee at a Walmart in Dallas, contends in her lawsuit that she contracted the coronavirus at work because Walmart didn't provide personal protective equipment nor implement other safety measures to protect against the virus' spread. Cross survived COVID-19 after spending a week in the hospital.

Randy Hargrove, a spokesperson for Walmart, declined to comment on the lawsuits, but he said that, while it could be impossible to figure out where or how someone contracted the coronavirus, Walmart is taking steps to protect its employees and customers.

Similarly, Tyson is facing litigation from the families of three employees of a pork processing plant in Iowa who died after contracting the coronavirus and developing COVID-19. The lawsuit claims that an outbreak of the new coronavirus occurred at the plant, but Tyson neglected to shut the plant down, against the recommendations of local health officials. Tyson denied the allegations and moved the case to federal court.

Overall, according to the law firm Hunton Andrews Kurth, as of late July, about 69 employment and labor lawsuits claiming that employees were exposed or potentially exposed to the new coronavirus had been filed.

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