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The hangup on the Hill: Who’s liable for COVID infections at work or school?
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One of the big sticking points in the stalled negotiations for a COVID-19 relief package up on Capitol Hill is liability protection.
Specifically, what kind of liability should businesses, schools and universities face if someone gets sick, or even dies, after contracting the virus at work or at school? And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republicans want broad liability protections in any deal.
Let’s say you run a university. One of your students catches COVID-19 and sues, arguing that it’s the school’s fault. You’d probably have the same concerns as Dr. Reynold Verret, president of Xavier University of Louisiana.
“Clearly, we have concerns about certain liabilities. For example, if someone were to catch COVID-19, it’s not clear where they were infected, that we want to be sure that it’s not normally attached to the institution,” he said.
Verret is an immunologist by training, and he said assigning blame and potential legal liability is tough when a virus is spreading everywhere.
“Where my mixed feelings come in, I think it’s important that we should have a clear guidance from the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and others on what are best practices,” Verret said.
Because that’s been unclear, from a legal standpoint, throughout the pandemic. Various states and cities have different rules.
Karen Harned runs the Small Business Legal Center at the National Federation of Independent Business, which has been pushing for a liability shield.
“We also think that it is important to make sure that if somebody is filing a complaint, they have to really do their due diligence,” she said — diligence to prove they were infected at the business they’re suing.
Other small business groups, including the progressive Main Street Alliance, say business owners are much more worried about keeping their doors open right now — and getting federal aid to help — than they are about potential lawsuits.
“If you’re acting reasonably, if you’re abiding by what your governor or mayor or whomever says, that’s going to be something you can fall back on to say, ‘Well, what more should I have done?'” said Davis Senseman, a lawyer who works with Main Street Alliance of Minnesota.
And that, Senseman said, is a liability defense on its own.
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