Are Employers Liable to Family Members of Their Employees who Contract Covid-19?

by Ericka J. Thomas

COVID-19 has presented challenges to all of us in a variety of different ways. It has changed how we do business, how we educate, and how we communicate. For the essential industries that have been able to remain operational, business is definitely not “as usual.” These industries have had to create plans to keep their workers protected from the spread of COVID-19, such as adjusting the distance between workers and providing personal protective equipment (PPE). Workers’ compensation laws have also changed to provide coverage to employees who contract COVID-19 during the course of their work. But what about the families of employees who catch the coronavirus at work and bring it home? Do employers also owe a duty to protect their employees’ families? This question has now been posed to the legal system through a number of recent lawsuits filed after a family member of an employee became seriously ill or died after the employee was exposed at work.

Two Illinois cases have been filed by family members of employees who contracted COVID-19 after work exposures. The first case was filed in Kane County after the wife of an employee at a meat packing plant died from COVID-19 on May 2, 2020. The employee was a butcher at the plant and asserts that he had to stand “shoulder to shoulder” with his co-employees in a processing line and sit “shoulder to shoulder” with his co-employees during his lunch break. After the employee contracted the coronavirus, his stay-at-home wife caught the virus from him and later died. The lawsuit alleges that the employer failed to warn employees about the virus and failed to implement a plan detailed by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to mitigate the spread of the virus. Although the packing plant was closed in April for a “deep cleaning,” the lawsuit claims that there was no deep cleaning actually done and that requests by employees for PPE were ignored.

The second case comes out of an assembly plant in Lockport. The employee was a parts assembler who became ill with COVID-19 in April. While the employee’s wife was caring for her husband, she contracted the disease and suffered “serious injuries to multiple organs.” The lawsuit alleges that the company failed to provide PPE, failed to sterilize work areas, and failed to implement social distancing guidelines. The company strongly denies the allegations and points to the fact that employees routinely wore masks and gloves even before COVID-19, due to the dust in the plant. Additionally, after the pandemic began, the company took all employees’ temperatures when they arrived for work each day. The employee who filed the lawsuit was the one employee who refused to have his temperature taken and was the first employee at the plant to contract COVID-19.

Both of these lawsuits are in the early stages of litigation and it remains to be seen how these theories of liability will hold up. The main issue for the plaintiffs will be to establish a “causal chain” to show that the businesses failed to implement safety measures, which led to the worker getting sick and infecting his family. The plaintiffs will also have to show that they took proper precautions so that they did not become ill from other sources.

To avoid liability, businesses should take extra precautions to protect their employees from contracting COVID-19. At a minimum, businesses should consult with and follow CDC guidelines, provide or make PPE available to employees, educate their employees on the spread of COVID-19, and increase the frequency of cleaning and sanitation. Because the coronavirus situation is rapidly and constantly evolving, it is always advisable to consult with your attorneys to assure that your business remains compliant with current protocols.