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.

Read More

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.

Read More

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.

Read More

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.

Read More

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.

Read More

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. 

Read More

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.

Read More

Empty hospital bed.

Do No Harm: A Call for Decarceration in Hospitals

By Zainab Ahmed

In an era of mass suffering, some still suffer more than others. What’s worse, there is nothing natural about it. It is human made.

As an emergency medicine resident at a large academic hospital in Los Angeles, I see how incarcerated patients’ suffering is sanctioned by hospitals and medical professionals, despite their pledge to do no harm.

Read More

Drug test strips.

Synthetic Cannabinoids and the Lack of Substance Use Disorder Treatment in Carceral Settings

By Aaron Steinberg, Ada Lin, Alice Bukhman, LaToya Whiteside, and Elizabeth Matos

The inability of prisons and jails to address the drivers of and treat substance use disorders, especially during the pandemic, is leading to underexplored health ramifications for prisoners, and particularly for prisoners who identify as Black, Indigenous, or other people of color (BIPOC), who already had comparatively poorer health outcomes.

This article focuses on one substance of growing popularity in carceral settings: synthetic cannabinoids (SC), which are frequently referred to as K2 or spice.

Read More

scoreboard with home and guests written on it at sunset time.

A Mind Is A Terrible _____ To Waste

By Vincent “Tank” Sherrill

You fill in the blank! I’ve often referred to the mind as a womb, or a laboratory of life, not a “thing,” but rather a place where thoughts and ideas are conceived. However, since COVID-19 has been introduced on the scene, I’ve watched a cold game being played inside two Washington State prisons: the game between “The Progression of the Mind versus The Regression of the Mind.”

I didn’t have a front row seat in the Colosseum to this American tragedy; I was one of the 2.3 million sacrificial bodies. (Some of these bodies were released, back into a society not prepared to receive, due to their own post-COVID health needs.)

Supposedly, under the watchful eye of Lady Justice, prisoners are afforded certain inalienable rights and privileges, like religious and education services, for the redemptive qualities they both provide. However, due to this plague of epic proportion within these walls (some ancient, and some modern), which have made my domicile for 28 years, these basic services that provide the space for the Mind to grow, develop, and reconcile ceased.

Read More