Airplane taking off from the airport.

In-Flight COVID Transmission: Surveying the Liability Landscape

By Christopher Robertson

Do airlines have legal obligations to manage the risk of in-flight infections?

In the pre-COVID era, I answered this question affirmatively. In a 2016 paper, I reviewed the scientific literature showing that airline travel is a key vector for spreading infectious disease, both because airports and airplanes tend to mix people in such close quarters that they are likely to infect each other, and because it efficiently distributes infected people around the world to then infect more people.

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Bill of Health - Gavel on mask during pandemic, class action lawsuits during pandemic

Relying on the Unreliable? COVID-19 Claims Can’t Proceed Without a Proper Standard of Care

By Michelle Richards

In the United States, the imposition of tort liability for the transmission of an infectious disease goes back more than a century. It is no surprise, therefore, that similar claims have been filed for damages arising from the transmission of the COVID-19 virus.

However, in order for these claims to be adjudicated fairly, they must be judged against a standard of care. A standard of care provides a benchmark for the level of caution a reasonable party would take in particular circumstances. If the standard of care is not met, liability may be imposed.

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Empty classroom.

Tort Liability for Faculty Who Fail to Tell the Class About COVID Cases in Their Midst

By Heidi Li Feldman

The more individuals must rely on their own judgment and effort to protect themselves from disease, the more they need information regarding the possibility of exposure to the cause of the disease.

This simple proposition, combined with changes in how governments and institutions are approaching COVID, means that university faculty should rethink their role in keeping their students informed about COVID cases among class members. To satisfy their legal obligations to protect students from harm, faculty must consider whether safeguarding their students from incurring COVID in their classrooms necessitates sharing such information. Fulfilling their legal duties to students may even require faculty to disregard administrative prohibitions against disseminating news of COVID cases in the class.

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A man holds a shield in his hand.

The Pathology (and Politics) of Liability Shields

By Nicolas Terry

Over one million Americans have died from COVID-19, while 20 percent of those who survive may develop post-COVID conditions. With weak safety net policies and high health care costs it would hardly be surprising if our fellow citizens tried to shift some of their COVID costs to arguably responsible defendants.

For example, lawsuits could have emerged against either businesses (or their employees) alleging negligent failure to mitigate (e.g., vaccinate, mask, or even implement hygiene theater policies), or against health care providers for failures in the professional standard of care (e.g., failure to amass/provide adequate numbers of personal protective equipment or ventilators).

However, the predicted litigation explosion has not materialized. In its stead (and without any apparent causal valence) we have experienced a proliferation of liability shield (aka limited immunity) laws.

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Herndon, USA - April 27, 2020: Virginia Fairfax County building exterior sign entrance to Mom's Organic Market store with request to wear face mask due to covid-19 pandemic.

Tort Liability is a Potentially Powerful Tool for Pandemic Response

By Timothy D. Lytton

When pandemic response efforts are hampered by inadequate enforcement resources and political polarization, tort liability could, potentially, be a powerful public health tool. However, starting in the initial stages of the pandemic, tort reform advocates quickly secured for businesses sweeping immunity from negligence, thereby sidelining the tort system. In this blog post, I will describe why this represents a lost opportunity.

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Construction workers wear protective face masks to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

California Supreme Court to Decide If Employers May Be Liable for ‘Take-Home’ COVID-19

By Mark A. Rothstein

Should an employer be held liable if an employee is infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the workplace and subsequently “takes it home” and infects a family member? The California Supreme Court will soon take up this question in Kuciemba v. Victory Woodworks.

The take-home liability theory was developed in the 1990s to provide a remedy for family members exposed to asbestos fibers brought home on the clothing of an employee, which later resulted in severe illness or death. Asbestos presented a unique and compelling case for recovery for a number of reasons: it is responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths, asbestosis and mesothelioma are diseases solely caused by asbestos exposure, an OSHA standard requires employers to provide protective clothing and changing rooms to prevent take-home exposures, and strict products liability theory may be used because asbestos is a “product.”

Notwithstanding these compelling factors for plaintiffs, the states are about evenly divided on whether they recognize lawsuits based on the take-home theory. Courts in states prohibiting such actions consider the harms unforeseeable, or determine that there is no significant relationship between the exposed family member and the employer, or rely on legislation barring take-home cases.

The California Supreme Court has adopted take home asbestos liability and the California Court of Appeals has applied this to COVID-19, but the California Supreme Court has yet to rule on this specific issue.

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Train tracks interchange leading around a curve as a controlled fire burns on the track during repairs.

COVID-19 and the Problem of Multiple Sufficient Causes

By Nina A. Kohn

Although politicians and pundits warned that businesses would drown in a “tidal wave” of lawsuits seeking to hold them liable for COVID-19 infections, plaintiffs face significant barriers to recovery. Not the least of these is the requirement that a tort plaintiff establish that the defendant was the “actual cause” (or “cause in fact”) of the plaintiff’s injury. This seemingly simple requirement creates a profound barrier to holding even the most negligent, reckless, and bad intentioned actors liable for spreading COVID-19. As others have observed, in a world in which SARS-CoV-2 is increasingly ubiquitous, plaintiffs will often be unable to show that their infections resulted from any particular bad actor’s behavior.

It is in this environment that a seldom used theory of causation — the “multiple sufficient causes” approach — may find new relevance. But it is also in this environment that the American Law Institute (ALI) — an organization comprised of leading lawyers, judges, and academics that publishes influential “Restatements,” or summaries, of common law — is being urged to jettison that theory in the Restatement Third of Torts.

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Gavel lying in a courtroom.

The Impossibility of Legal Accountability for COVID-19 Torts

By Chloe Reichel and Valerie Gutmann Koch

Since the first days of the COVID-19 pandemic, employers, businesses, and other entities have anticipated litigation around tort claims associated with the novel coronavirus. Early in 2020, scholars here began to grapple with questions of tort liability relating to the pandemic response. However, nearly three years later, it appears that the warnings of a “tidal wave” of lawsuits were vastly overstated.

In this symposium, we asked torts scholars to reflect on questions surrounding whether and how individuals and entities might be held liable for the harms associated with SARS-CoV-2 infection, particularly as infection has grown increasingly widespread and COVID mitigations have become more limited or entirely eliminated.

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Barbed wire in front of blue sky.

The Struggle to Survive in the Pandemic Prison

By Jamal Spencer and Monik C. Jiménez

Prisons, jails, and other carceral facilities have been core sites of the COVID-19 pandemic, from initial outbreaks in Chinese prisons to some of the largest outbreaks in the U.S. The uniquely dangerous physical conditions within carceral facilities (i.e., overcrowding, poor ventilation, and lack of sanitation); a high prevalence of chronic diseases among incarcerated people; and high levels of physical movement through facilities, resulted in environmental conditions ripe for uncontrolled SARS-CoV-2 transmission.

As early as June 2020, the mortality rate from COVID-19 among incarcerated people was three times higher than the general population and the infection rate five times higher. Yet, despite these inequities, the human toll of COVID-19 among incarcerated people has remained behind the walls and in the shadows. Without intentionally centering the voices of those who have lived in the most extreme conditions of social and physical marginalization, we fail to understand the full toll of the pandemic and impair our ability to respond humanely to future crises. 

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Austin, Tx/USA - May 23, 2020: Family members of prisoners held in the state prison system demonstrate at the Governor's Mansion for their release on parole due to the danger of Covid-19 in prisons.

Federal Failures to Protect Incarcerated People During Public Health Crises

By Rachel Kincaid

As the COVID-19 pandemic persists, and as we face the reality that future pandemics are coming (or have already begun), it’s a fitting time for the United States to take stock of how the carceral system has exacerbated the harms of COVID-19, and for policymakers to seriously consider what can and should be done differently going forward.

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