As the coronavirus continues to expand its US body count, some states insist on reopening, as do some businesses and institutions. Some churches continue to offer services, refusing to tell their congregants to wear masks or practice social distancing.
Meanwhile, recent Applebee’s commercials show happy families returning to their restaurants. None of the family members are wearing masks, and the employees aren’t either. Happy, optimistic music plays in the background.
Medical science agrees that for the best chance to save your life and others’ lives, you need to wear masks, socially distance, and wash your hands frequently. However, you can defy these edicts and go places alongside other people who are likewise ignoring this advice.
But what happens if you or a loved one dies from catching the coronavirus at an amusement park, in a restaurant, in a church, etc.? Would it be possible to sue that institution or entity for wrongful death?
Negligence, Harmful Intent, and Limitation Statutes
In wrongful death lawsuits, there are a couple of points worth mentioning. In these cases:
- There is usually a limitation statute
- You need to prove that negligence or harmful intent caused the death
According to Stewart Guss, different states have different limitations statutes. For instance, if you live in Texas, generally speaking, this statute of limitations is two years from the date of your loved one’s death. It can be less or more in other states.
Where it gets tricky is that clause about proving, definitely, either negligence or harmful intent. A church doesn’t want to kill its congregants. But are they negligent if they know that there’s a possible threat and encourage people to come worship anyway?
The Trump Rally and Disneyworld
Not long ago, a Trump rally required all those attending to sign a waiver beforehand. That waiver indemnified President Trump and his reelection campaign from any wrongdoing if a person caught Covid-19 and died from attending.
At about the same time, Disneyworld reopened. They require masks and social distancing. However, the theme park drew some attention when they said it was now against the rules for guests to lower their masks so that they could eat and drink as they walked around amongst the attractions.
These are interesting caveats, for the following reasons:
- These entities, the Trump campaign, and Disney, are obviously both aware of the pandemic risks
- They’re open for business anyway and encouraging people to come there and interact with one another
In the Trump rally’s case, allowing people to assemble seems particularly egregious, since there were no mask or social distancing rules. At least Disney appeared to take the pandemic more seriously.
The question remains, though. Is there liability from the Trump rally if someone gets sick and dies from attending? What about Disneyworld? What about Applebee’s, or Walmart, or any other business entity or institution that seems to be going against medical science recommendations?
Proving Wrongful Death Liability
With wrongful death cases, the survivors are looking to get financial compensation for a lost potential inheritance from the deceased, medical, and funeral expenses, companionship loss, and support loss. All of that makes sense if a negligent entity clearly cased the death in question.
Proving wrongful death can be exceedingly tricky, though. Let’s say that someone dies who lived in an apartment with lead paint. The landlord knew about the danger and painted over it instead of getting rid of it.
The person dies from symptoms associated with lead paint poisoning. It’s still difficult to prove in court that the lead paint caused their death. The defendant’s attorney will likely try and point to underlying health factors rather than the lead paint itself.
Proving Death from Covid-19
The pandemic has killed 140,000 people in this country and counting, but it’s challenging to trace exactly where they got it. Contact tracing is a way that some countries are trying to slow Covid-19 spread, but it’s far from a perfect system. If someone goes to a birthday party and they infect a dozen people, then usually, it’s not too difficult to establish that.
If, however, someone goes to Applebee’s, or Disneyworld, Walmart, or anywhere else, and they subsequently die from Covid-19, it would be quite challenging to prove in court that they got it there. Holding the company liable would be an arduous task for even the most skilled wrongful death attorney.
The Trump campaign was smart to require people to sign a waiver before attending the rally. They know that if many people got sick afterward, they could avoid a possible class-action lawsuit from the families if some of them died.
There’s Great Uncertainty About These Lawsuits
It seems inevitable that some people will try to sue various entities if a family member catches Covid-19, and then dies. If they feel like they can link the illness to one particular event, such as going to church or a restaurant, then they’ll try to hold that entity accountable through a wrongful death suit.
The proof burden falls on the survivors, though, if they want financial compensation. Unless contact tracing can prove, beyond all doubt, that the deceased caught Covid-19 at that one event, then the survivors will likely lose their case.
Maybe it should be that way, from a liability standpoint. If someone knows that they’re at high risk if they go to a restaurant, church, amusement park, etc., and do it anyway, should the law hold that entity liable if the person gets sick and dies? Nothing was forcing them to go there, and they could have just as easily stayed home.
Rhetorical questions aside, it will be fascinating to see how some of these lawsuits play out in court. It’s by no means clear whether the law will come down on the side of the entity that knew there was a potential risk or the customer who knew the same thing and attended anyway.
One thing is certain: to avoid these issues entirely, you’re safer staying away from these places until a vaccine emerges.