In what lawyers say is the first COVID-19 wrongful death lawsuit, the daughter of an Illinois factory worker has alleged her mother died of the virus contracted by her father, who worked at a meat processing plant, Reuters reported.
The nation’s businesses are vulnerable to claims that workers brought the coronavirus home and infected family members, according to Reuters. At least one risk analysis firm said such litigation could cost employers billions of dollars.
“Businesses should be very concerned about these cases,” Tom Gies, a labor and employment attorney at Crowell & Moring in Washington, D.C., told Reuters.
Esperanza Ugalde’s daughter filed the wrongful death suit last month against Aurora Packing Co., the North Aurora, Illinois, factory. The case borrows from asbestos litigation that has exposed businesses to costly damages, even though plaintiffs never set foot on the premises.
The complaint against Aurora alleges that Ricardo Ugalde worked on the company’s processing line in April when Aurora knew it had a coronavirus outbreak at its facility. It alleges the company failed to warn employees or adopt prevention measures.
Aurora did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.
Of the 200,000 U.S. deaths from COVID-19, as many as 9 percent, or 18,000, stem from these “take home” cases, according to Praedicat, a Los Angeles firm that evaluates risks for insurers, Reuters reported.
While the nation’s workers compensation system caps liability for businesses and prevents costly lawsuits. Esperanza Ugalde was not an employee of Aurora. As a result, her family can sue the company. Depending on the circumstances, a successful wrongful death case can top $1 million in damages, Reuters reported.
There is precedent for such action.
A California jury awarded Rose-Marie Griggs $27 million in damages in 2013 after she contracted mesothelioma, a common form of lung cancer. Her attorneys successfully argued the illness was caused by asbestos fibers carried home on the work clothes of her then-husband, who installed insulation. The company later appealed, and the two sides reached a private settlement before the case reached a judge.
One of stumbling blocks to reach a compromise on a new stimulus package has been COVID-19 liability protection for employers.
In May, House Democrats passed a $3 trillion measure, but it did not contain lawsuit protections. In July, Senate Republicans unveiled a $1 trillion bill which included a key provision to protect employers.
“All of us on the Republican side have known we have got to protect nonprofits, businesses, employers that are wanting to open up, but you got trial lawyers ready to slap them with lawsuits over COVID and they need that protection,” Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas said in July.