Should Amazon, Walmart, others be held liable for workers sickened by COVID-19?
Early last month, the National Retail Federation (NRF) sent a memo to Congress with a list of the priorities that the trade group believed should be in any new stimulus legislation. At the top of that list was liability reform.
The NRF, along with other business groups, is urging lawmakers to limit the liability of employers in cases brought by workers sickened with COVID-19 or individuals who may have become infected with the virus after coming in contact with workers.
Some have suggested that a more equitable response to employees sickened by the novel coronavirus may be alternative “no-fault” civil litigation. The thinking here is that workers would be compensated for having become ill while working in a store or a warehouse, but that companies would not be bankrupted in addressing all the potential claims against them.
Employee suits being brought against retailers is not a hypothetical.
Amazon.com is being sued after a worker at its warehouse in Staten Island, NY contracted the novel coronavirus and later saw family members become ill, including a cousin who died. Reuters reports that the lawsuit claims Amazon puts its warehouse workers in a “place of danger” by forcing them to meet job requirements that prevent them “from socially distancing, washing their hands, and sanitizing their workspaces.”
The e-tailing giant has consistently defended the actions it has taken to protect its warehouse workers and those in its Whole Foods stores. On the company’s first-quarter earnings announcement, CEO Jeff Bezos announced that Amazon would spend $4 billion in the second quarter to keep employees safe.
The very first COVID-19-related lawsuit brought against a retailer in Illinois, one of the states hit hardest by the coronavirus outbreak, was in April against Walmart. The estate of Wando Evans, a former employee at a Walmart store in Evergreen Park, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the retailer after his death on March 25 from complications caused by the virus, reports Law360.
A second worker at the same store died days after Mr. Evans, and his estate claims that the store took no action to prevent symptomatic employees from working until after he died. Mr. Evans’ estate contends that store management did not train workers in COVID-19 mitigation procedures, provided no personal protective equipment for employees nor took actions to properly sanitize the store.
At the time, Walmart spokesperson Randy Hargrove said the company was “heartbroken” over the loss of its workers to the virus. He also said the retailer had already taken steps to reinforce its cleaning and sanitization practices. Mr. Hargrove told Law360 that Walmart took the suit against it seriously and would respond, as appropriate, in court.
- NRF Priorities For The Next Economic Stimulus Package – National Retail Federation
- Amazon is sued over warehouses after New York worker brings coronavirus home, cousin dies – Reuters
- There go the profits. Amazon to spend $4B on coronavirus response. – RetailWire
- Ex-Walmart Worker’s Death Spurs ‘First’ Ill. COVID Death Suit – Law360
- Fear, heroism and wrongful death lawsuits in the age of coronavirus – RetailWire
- Walmart sells inclusivity at its annual shareholder meeting – RetailWire
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you support the passage of legislation that would limit the liability of employers in cases where workers get sick from COVID-19 on the job? Do you think such legislation could be drafted so that it would also be equitable for both stores and affected workers and their families?