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Workers’ Family Members and COVID-19 Infections: Employers to Blame?

Are companies obligated to individuals who have never stepped foot on their property? Courts across the nation have been split on this issue. With the threat of the risk of spread of coronavirus across the nation and the world, this issue will likely be raised in new lawsuits in the U.S. alleging that negligence by companies led workers to become sick and pass the coronavirus to family members. This trend could result in billions of dollars being paid out to injured victims.

“Take Home” Cases

These coronavirus infection lawsuits will likely follow those regarding successful asbestos cases in which family members fell ill after workers exposed to the toxin came home with asbestos fibers on their clothing. Referred to as “take home” cases, the concept is the same: A family member falls ill or dies due to COVID-19 because a worker was exposed to the virus at his or her place of employment and brought the virus home, infecting a loved one.

One coronavirus-related lawsuit was filed in August of this year, by the daughter of an Illinois woman who allegedly passed away from COVID-19 that the deceased’s husband brought home after contracting the virus at his place of employment — the Aurora Packing Company’s meat processing plant. According to news reports on the case, the plaintiff alleges the company took no steps to protect its workers from exposure to the virus. This is thought to be the first “take home” coronavirus-related wrongful death lawsuit.

Another case involves an Illinois woman who alleges she contracted COVID-19 from her husband, a parts assembler who worked at Byrne & Schaefer, Inc. in Lockport. The woman subsequently suffered serious injuries to multiple organs. According to coverage by the Herald-News, the woman fell ill while caring for her sick husband. Byrne & Schaefer’s owner told news agencies that workers routinely wore masks and gloves even before the pandemic because of the dust at the workplace. 

How These Cases Differ

The causal chain–or proving that but for the employer’s negligence, the virus would not have come home and injured or killed the workers’ family members–can be complicated in a coronavirus “take home” case. Specifically, the injured plaintiff will have to establish that the worker took precautions to avoid becoming sick from other employees at the workplace. 

Notably, plaintiffs who are successful in COVID-19 “take home” cases will not be subject to limits on monetary compensation that employees face when there is a workers’ compensation claim. The cases borrow legal elements from asbestos “take home” litigation, which can expose businesses to pain and suffering damages even if the plaintiff never set foot on the businesses’ property. Accordingly, many companies are concerned about these types of lawsuits. 

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