Can You Sue Because Someone Gives You Coronavirus?
The novel coronavirus labelled COVID-19 is quickly becoming a pandemic. It has caused multiple deaths in the United States. This has caused people to run to hardware stores to purchase N-95 respirators and surgical masks to prevent exposure. Unfortunately, these methods are largely ineffective. One of the best ways to prevent the spread of illness is to engage in proper hygiene and hand-washing. Also, don’t touch your face. This can be really frustrating when we all know that may people don’t wash their hands. We’ve all been coughed on while waiting in line at the grocery store. It also makes one wonder, can you sue because someone gives you coronavirus? The answer may not surprise you.
A person may be held liable for spreading contagious illnesses because of tort law, which is different from criminal law. In tort law, a crime does not have to be committed. Instead, a person is held liable for damages done to a person out of malice or negligence.
The courts will deliver a judgement and award damages to an injured party as long as they can prove that the damages occurred due to their actions or negligence. This is what makes it possible to sue for spreading a contagious virus, but it is also what makes it a challenge.
In order to prove negligence, you must prove that the defendant had a duty to act, failed to act, it caused the damage, and there were damages. This can get difficult with invisible viruses and the ambiguous, subjective sense of duty. Should you be held liable for not being able to cover your cough because your hands were full? Can they pinpoint you as the cause of a virus that has spread throughout a community?
Burden of Proof
In criminal law, the burden of proof must be beyond a reasonable doubt. This means that the courts must be certain a person committed a crime before they can be convicted of that crime. This would be very difficult to do with the flu or other easily-communicable viruses. It has been done with sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). For example, there are those criminals who knowingly spread STDs to multiple partners in acts of malice. In cases where the STD could be deadly (HIV), these people were criminally prosecuted, convicted, and served time. It is easier to prove STD transmission because there are typically less potential perpetrators.
With a cold or flu, practically anyone could be a culprit. However, you don’t have as high of a burden of proof in a civil case. Instead, judgements are made based on a preponderance of evidence that makes it more-likely-than-not that a person was responsible for an injury. Still, the person would have had to act in a negligent manner, breaching a duty owed to you. This means you would have to prove that the person intentionally didn’t cover their cough or didn’t wash their hands with the intent to spread illness, AND that they spread it to you. That’s difficult when an entire community gets sick. Pretty much anyone could have spread it.
That leaves the current predicament of the coronavirus and whether or not you could sue a certain person for transmitting the virus to you. It is very unlikely, but there are possibilities. If a person refused to quarantine himself or herself against a court order, and you got sick, it probably wouldn’t hold up in court unless you can prove by a greater weight of the evidence this particular person caused you to become infected with the coronavirus. Did you go to a grocery store? Did you go anywhere? Then, it is possible that someone else gave you the virus. It is estimated that 80 percent of people who contract the virus have mild symptoms and don’t require medical attention. This means that any “healthy” person could have actually spread a virus to you.
Do You Even Want to Pursue a Coronavirus Lawsuit?
The next challenge in a lawsuit for a virus is whether you’d actually want to sue for it. It may be more trouble than it’s worth. What are your damages? Possibly a few weeks off work. That may feel significant, however, it may not be that significant when you compare it to the cost of an unsuccessful lawsuit. If you can get a lawyer to take your case, you’re in for a lot of expenses including time, money, and frustration. You have to prove that nobody else gave you the virus, which is probably going to be difficult. Additionally, you are going to have to hire experts, which can become prohibitively expensive if you are only making a claim for lost wages.
But What About All Those People Spreading the Coronavirus!
Pandemics are very frustrating because they are deadly, yet people continue to touch their faces and forget to wash their hands. Unfortunately, given the difficulties proving someone was negligent in spreading the virus to you, there is very little which can be done in a civil court to hold someone responsible for causing you to become sick. The best thing you can do is what the CDC recommends and use common sense:
- NO HANDSHAKING! Use a fist bump, slight bow, elbow bump, etc.
- Use ONLY your knuckle to touch light switches, elevator buttons, etc.
- Lift the gasoline dispenser with a paper towel or use a disposable glove.
- Open doors with your closed fist or hip – do not grasp the handle with your hand, unless there is no other way to open the door. Especially important on bathroom and post office/commercial doors.
- Use disinfectant wipes at the stores when they are available, including wiping the handle and child seat in grocery carts.
- Wash your hands with soap for 10-20 seconds and/or use a greater than 60% alcohol-based hand sanitizer whenever you return home from ANY activity that involves locations where other people have been.
- Keep a bottle of sanitizer available at each of your home’s entrances AND in your car for use after getting gas or touching other contaminated objects when you can’t immediately wash your hands.
- If possible, cough or sneeze into a disposable tissue and discard. Use your elbow only if you have to. The clothing on your elbow will contain infectious virus that can be passed on for up to a week or more!
People Have Died.
You aren’t likely to have a successful lawsuit regarding coronavirus if you only missed a few days of work and had relatively minimal damages. However, there are many deaths caused by COVID-19, and there could be some lawsuits that end up happening. Wrongful death suits are also civil suits that require a preponderance of the evidence.
If a facility did not engage in proper cleaning or quarantine methods, they may be held liable for some coronavirus deaths. These cases are likely to be inevitable, as many people have lost and will lose loved ones due to this illness. It is difficult to predict how these cases will be handled, and there will probably be a variance of judgments based on the actions of staff, errors made, and the ability of those organizations to properly compensate their victims.
Still, the judgments will have to exclude outside variables as a cause for the illness, and it is unclear whether or not that will be warranted. More likely, judgments will occur due to malpractice or cover-ups, rather than the actual transmission of the illness.
You Can Sue For Many Things, But You Have to Weigh the Costs
Can you sue because someone gives you coronavirus? Probably. However, you probably won’t win a judgement that is worth the time and cost of the lawsuit. Viruses are usually too easily spread among members of the community (and visitors) in order to pin it on one person. Even in a wrongful death suit, you’d be more likely to receive a judgement for malpractice, or cover-ups, than the actual transmission of the virus.
The coronavirus is a great scare to many Americans. When people are harmed by something they cannot control, it is common to look for someone to blame. In some cases, the courts may find people culpable for the transmission of disease. They probably will have difficulty finding one person at fault for the transmission of COVID-19.