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Can Individuals Be Held Liable for Spreading COVID-19?

  • Jan 01, 2021
  • The Harr Law Firm

Gavel and facemask on deskCOVID-19 has proven to be an unusually divisive disease, with some arguing for more health mandates to control it and others pushing for businesses and individual lifestyles to proceed as normal. A year after the pandemic initially came to our shores, COVID-19 continues to be a point of contention for many, even as vaccinations proceed in every state. But one question that has begun to arise—perhaps as a result of the division this disease has caused—is whether or not an individual can be held liable for spreading COVID-19. Keep reading to learn more about this possibility, and whether or not there’s any legal precedence for it.

Establishing a Cause of Action

In any liability case, the plaintiff must establish a cause of action—a set of facts that justifies your right to sue. In cases of spreading a deadly disease like COVID-19, you would likely need to establish a cause of action for neglect; you would need to prove four essential things:

  1. The defendant owed the plaintiff some sort of duty.
  2. They failed to uphold that duty.
  3. The defendant’s actions caused direct harm to the plaintiff.
  4. The plaintiff incurred damages as a result of that harm.

So, is it possible to establish a cause of action for something like a contagious illness? Let’s look at some cases related to other diseases, which may help you get an idea of how this might work.

Legal Action against Spreading Disease

Cases against spreaders of COVID-19 are far from the first cases to be brought against people spreading illnesses. In the case of Billo v. Allegheny Steel Co., the court stated, “To be stricken with disease through another’s negligence is… no different from being struck with an automobile through another’s negligence.”

There have also been many cases brought against individuals who spread HIV to sexual partners. In such cases, the California Supreme Court stated that the burden of care lies with the person who carries the disease. Additionally, they stated that “tort of negligent transmission of HIV does not depend solely on actual knowledge of HIV infection and would extend at least to those situations where the actor, under the totality of the circumstances, has reason to know of the infection.”

As you can see, it has been widely acknowledged that causing illness to another person can be legal grounds for a lawsuit. Now, let’s discuss how to establish a cause of action in regards to spreading COVID-19.

A Duty to Prevent Transmission

A person who has spread COVID-19 as a result of neglectful action would likely argue that they had a right to go about their lives as normal—to go to an event, to travel, to visit friends, and so on. This is known as a “privilege-right,” and would negate their duty to others. However, such arguments shouldn’t be upheld.

Just as a person with HIV holds the duty to prevent transmission of that disease, someone infected with COVID-19 has a duty to their fellow men to prevent its spread. Whether the person knew they had COVID-19, had symptoms but no test results, or knew they had been exposed to the virus, they have a duty and responsibility to protect others.

A Failure to Uphold Their Duty

Next, you would have to establish that they did not uphold that duty. This would be any circumstance in which the person who knew they had (or had reason to know that they had) COVID-19 leaves their home and goes to a public space or uses public services. In some cases, the person may have had to leave their home out of absolute necessity; however, barring this, knowingly exposing the public to the virus you carry would be considered a breach of duty.

Direct Harm to the Plaintiff

You will then need to show that the action of the defendant (their failure to perform their duty) caused you direct harm. For contagious diseases, this means proving that the individual you are suing was the cause of your own illness. While it’s difficult to say this definitively, establishing a clear timeline of the defendant’s illness, your contact with them, and your own illness is usually sufficient.

Your Incurred Damages

Finally, you’ll need to show that the illness you contracted resulted in measurable damages. If you contracted COVID-19 from this individual but had minor symptoms, you likely don’t have much of a case. But if you ended up with high medical bills and lost wages, and suffered extensively as a result of your illness, then you incurred clear losses as a result of this person’s actions.

While the legal precedence and potential for lawsuit does stand in regards to spreading COVID-19, it’s not a common course of action at this time, so it should be handled by experienced legal professionals. If you became ill as the result of another person’s negligence, contact us. We’ll help you to build a case based on these clearly established legal principals.