Coronavirus Lawsuits: Assessing Liability in Upcoming Negligence Litigation

    On March 9, 2020, a couple quarantined on the Grand Princess cruise ship, sued Princess Cruise Lines Ltd. after docking in Oakland, CA. This case marks the first negligence lawsuit filed in direct response to the rising coronavirus epidemic gripping the world.

    The plaintiff couple, Ronald and Eva Weissberger, allege Princess negligently handled the onboard coronavirus outbreak. According to the couple’s complaint, Princess knew two passengers on the ship’s previous voyage had presented with COVID-19 symptoms. The infected passengers were allowed to disembark and a new group of passengers, including the Weissbergers, boarded later that day. The ship sailed to Hawaii as planned. Over the course of the trip, however, 21 cases of coronavirus were confirmed onboard. The Weissbergers claim Princess should have taken more stringent precautions to prevent the spread of the virus.

    Currently, the U.S. reports at least 4,744 coronavirus cases and 93 deaths. But as these numbers inevitably rise, so will the sources of litigation. COVID-19, along with the obvious health risks, has become a source of intense panic and confusion for the future. As the country grapples with how to contain a novel and rapidly spreading virus, there is no doubt that additional lawsuits will be filed. Future litigation could take aim at employers, co-working spaces, medical centers, or even schools. As with the coronavirus itself, it will take time to see the full legal impact and who’s implicated as responsible.

    Cruise Ship Negligence: What Went Wrong on the Princess Diamond

    The Weissbergers also cited the Diamond Princess incident in their suit against the cruise company. Passengers aboard the Diamond Princess ship were quarantined off the coast of Japan for two weeks in February. During this time, coronavirus cases on the ship soared from 10 to over 700. The Weissbergers contend Princess should have learned from this outbreak, especially since it occurred less than a month before the Hawaii-bound cruise.

    The Diamond Princess quarantine has been criticized for its poor containment of COVID-19. After the initial 10 cases were reported, Japan’s Ministry of Health ordered a 14-day quarantine for everyone onboard the ship. Following the quarantine, passengers were tested for COVID-19, but experienced delays in receiving information about their status. Passengers also reported incorrect testing practices, sparse information about infection levels, and irregular food delivery.

    According to epidemiology experts, the Princess Diamond’s biggest error was keeping healthy and infected people in close quarters. “The quarantine was not justified, and violated the individual rights of the passengers while allowing the virus to literally pick them off one-by-one,” Dr. Amesh Adalja, of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told Business Insider. In a clear error in containment judgment, fingers are pointing to both Princess Cruise Lines and Japan’s health officials for negligence in handling the outbreak.

    Beyond Cruises: Institutions at Risk for Coronavirus Lawsuits

    Hospitals

    Those at the front lines of the coronavirus fight are hospital personnel. But recently, reports have highlighted where these medical professionals are ill-equipped for the novel COVID-19 virus. According to a New York Times report, nurses in California and Washington State have had to beg for N95 masks. These masks block out more particle types than typical surgical masks.

    Nurses have also spoken out about exposed colleagues who have been asked to leave quarantine prematurely because hospitals are short-staffed. In addition to their close contact with coronavirus patients, health care workers are also far more likely to unknowingly pass the virus to people outside a hospital setting. These lapses in protection are undoubtedly creating liability issues for hospitals across the country, as medical personnel struggle to contain the outbreak.

    Emergency Response Services

    First responders, personnel trained to assist in emergency situations, also face a precarious position between the virus and at-risk people. This week, New York City officials announced that a fire department emergency medical services (EMS) employee had tested positive for COVID-19. This was after the employee “worked three tours in the last week, partnered with five fellow EMS members, and treated 11 patients.” 19 first responders are now self-quarantined.

    The role of first responders places them in direct contact with patients in the field. This also makes them a potential agent for coronavirus spread—which, handled irresponsibly, puts emergency services at risk of related litigation.

    Nursing Homes

    Nursing homes have been hit particularly hard by COVID-19. The CDC reports older adults are one of the highest-risk groups for coronavirus complications. A nursing home in a Seattle suburb reported 13 resident deaths, six infected residents, and 70 infected staff members. The facility also said they had not been able to access enough test kits for all remaining residents and staff.

    Nursing homes and other senior facilities will face intense scrutiny for their handling of coronavirus. These facilities are entrusted to care for an already high-risk group, the elderly. But the rapid spread of coronavirus through a number of nursing homes presents a question of liability.

    Employers

    As COVID-19 concerns sweep across workplaces, companies around the globe scramble to compile contingency plans that will keep employees safe. According to the Harvard Business Review, employers must “demonstrate corporate policy alignment with official recommendations” in order to avoid infection-related legal liability.

    Employers have a legal responsibility to provide a hazard-free workplace, and this responsibility extends into protection from COVID-19 infection in the office. Legal obligations include communicating best prevention practices in the office, restricting ill employees’ return to work, and general OSHA compliance for workplace health and safety. Although currently there’s no official OSHA provision extending to coronavirus, prudent employers are working to mitigate exposure risks for employees.

    Expert Witnesses Who Can Aid Coronavirus Lawsuits

    Infectious Disease Experts

    Infectious disease specialists are authorities in diagnosing and treating illnesses caused by microorganisms, including viruses. These days, ID specialists are ubiquitous talking heads on the news, as the world struggles to understand COVID-19 transmission. Their expertise will be critical for understanding appropriate quarantine measures and standard practices for medical professionals handling infectious diseases.

    Expert Cruise Ship Physicians

    A medical professional with experience on a cruise ship can offer essential testimony on the onboard infirmary practices. These experts can opine on the training for emergency medical events and quarantine protocols for a cruise ship. They can act as an authority on how appropriately (or negligently) Princess, and other companies, responded during COVID-19 outbreaks.

    Nursing Home Administrator

    A nursing home administration expert can shed light on daily nursing home facility operations. Their testimony would be essential for identifying protocol breaches that possibly spread the infection among residents and staff.

    OSHA Experts

    For any cases involving negligent employers, an OSHA expert may opine on the official, legal workplace health and safety obligations.