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How to Avoid COVID-19 Liability in Your Business

The COVID-19 crisis has caused massive issues for business owners. Businesses may have had to shut down for a certain period of time and, when they reopened, couldn’t fulfill all their functions.

For instance, many restaurants are allowed to be open, but for takeout and outdoor dining only in certain states. Some stores have limited their hours of operation and won’t let customers shop openly like they used to. Businesses that involve more human contact, like nail salons, massage parlors and tattoo shops, may be closed for the indefinite future.

No matter what your business – whether it’s a store or a restaurant, or you hire employees who work in an office or a hospital – you can take certain steps to mitigate risk to help ensure patrons and employees won’t spread the COVID-19.

Here are some steps that may safeguard against a possible liability lawsuit.

Follow OSHA Guidelines

The United States Department of Labor has put out COVID-19 guidelines for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). In its document “Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19,” OSHA lists protocols like allowing sick workers and workers taking care of sick family members to stay home, promoting frequent hand washing, discouraging workers from touching the same equipment and maintaining flexible policies so that some employees can work from home.

If you run a hospital, the protocols are even stricter since hospital employees are treating people with COVID-19. Workers would need to wear essential PPE, have their temperature taken before starting their shift and asked questions pertinent to any exposures.

Make sure you are following the law and doing what’s in your power to prevent the spread. If a liability issue comes up, then you can say you did what you were supposed to do.

Follow CDC Guidelines

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have been updating their guidelines throughout the crisis, and are now encouraging people to wear appropriate masks at all times, stay at least 6 feet apart, avoid large gatherings and wash and disinfect their hands as much as possible. Encouraging employees and customers to do the same is a good idea.

You’ll also need to come up with certain guidelines to enter your place of business. For instance, if you own a restaurant, then you may only allow customers to take off their masks when eating and drinking. They’d need to have them on when they enter your restaurant and when they get up for any reason.

If you have a store, you could put markings on the floor 6 feet apart to direct customers on where to stand in line. You could also install Plexiglas shields between customers and employees, and clean and sanitize your store as much as possible. Letting customers do curbside pickup may reduce risk, as well.

Will a Take-Home Claim Hold Up in Court?

Employees may believe they got COVID-19 at your place of business. However, due to the extent of COVID-19, they may not be able to sue, but they may have a valid worker’s compensation claim.

In some states, a person could try to sue through a “take-home” claim, meaning the employee contracted COVID-19 in the workplace, took it home and infected someone.  This case would not be easy to win, though. The family member, or the plaintiff, may have to prove that the employer was negligent when it came to protecting workers, that negligence caused the employee to contract COVID-19, the employee brought the virus home from work and subsequently infected the plaintiff.  Laws on this are changing rapidly, and it is important to review them with an experienced, competent, lawyer.

 A defense would be to show that everything possible was done to prevent the spread of COVID-19.  But the potential for these claims cannot be ignored.

Staying on Top of the Guidelines and Laws

The fact is that COVID-19 is a new illness, and scientists are still figuring out how to prevent it and treat sick patients. There is a steep learning curve and business owners need to constantly educate themselves on new guidelines and laws that come out. For instance, if COVID-19 cases suddenly start to go up in your area, you may be ordered to shut down operations again. If you don’t follow the law, and then a customer or employee claims they got COVID-19 at your business, your side of the lawsuit may be harder to win.

If you’re too busy to keep up with the rules, give one of your employees this task. Other helpful steps include talking to your insurance provider for guidance, offering employees training, cleaning and sanitizing and putting out a summary that lists your new guidelines and invites comments/suggestions.

Whatever you decide to do, always be in communication with your employees and customers and let them know you’re looking out for them and their health. Tell them that if they have any questions or concerns, they can get in touch with you right away.

Contacting a Premises Liability Lawyer

If you ever find yourself facing a liability claim brought against you or your business, and you’re worried about where to turn, instead of trying to fight it on your own, consult a lawyer who will be there for you. They’ll help you navigate the legal process and come up with every line of defense that could shield you from liability.

The experienced premises liability attorneys at Heiting & Irwin are on your side. Call us at 951-682-6400 or contact our office online to schedule a free consultation as soon as possible.

James Heiting

The only past President of the State Bar of California ever elected from the Inland Empire, James Heiting handles civil litigation matters throughout California, recovering over $400 million for clients, dealing with wrongful death, serious injury, professional malpractice and transportation accidents. Also past President of Riverside’s County Bar, his firm has served the Inland Empire for over 30 years. View Attorney James Otto Heiting's Attorney Bio Here.

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