What liabilities do business owners face when returning to work during a pandemic?

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Under current law, business owners may face significant liability should they fail to manage the COVID-19 crisis appropriately. With business lobbyists advocating for legislation to immunize business owners from any legal liability resulting from business operations during the COVID-19 pandemic, affected individuals should contact an attorney as soon as possible to discuss their options.

Employees may have recourse if they are exposed and contract COVID-19 on the job. State and federal law requires that employers adopt and implement certain reasonable safety measures to protect the health of their employees. Employers should be cognizant of both mandatory orders and suggested guidance issued by the Ohio Governor’s office, the Center for Disease Control, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Employers should consult with legal counsel to adopt specific policies appropriately tailored to their particular business. If an employer takes all reasonable safety precautions and an employee contracts COVID-19, the employee may still be eligible for compensation through the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation. Unlike typical legal recourse, with workers’ compensation, an employee does not need to prove that an employer failed to protect the employee. If an employer does fail to take reasonable safety precautions, though, and an employee contracts COVID-19, the employee may be able to bring a lawsuit against the employer. This type of lawsuit allows for the employee to recover more significant damages than available through workers’ compensation. With both workers’ compensation and litigation, the biggest hurdle is proving that the employee contracted the illness at work. This is obviously made easier if the employee is otherwise taking every precaution to protect himself or herself while away from work. Additionally, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has issued guidance that states that employers must reasonably accommodate employees that are at “high risk” and request accommodations. Such accommodations could range from telework to allowing the employee to take a different lunch hour than the remainder of employees. If an employer refuses to work with an employee in finding an appropriate solution or retaliates against the employee for making the request, the employee may have legal recourse.

Likewise, business patrons may have viable legal claims against businesses if those businesses fail to take reasonable precautions. Ohio law requires retail businesses to keep their patrons reasonably safe from hazards that the business owners knew or should have known existed. As with employees, the most significant hurdle in bringing any such legal action is proving that the business was the source of the contracted disease. While this may be made easier with recent efforts to ramp up contact tracing, it is made more difficult if a specific patron is engaging in regular public activity. Given these different factors, it is important to consult with an attorney with experience handling personal injury matters.

At Ingram, Cassese, & Grimm LLP, we are willing to provide a cost-free consult, evaluate your case, and recommend your best course of action. If your legal issue falls outside our area of expertise, we will gladly help you find an attorney well-suited to assist you with your legal needs.

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