In the midst of the worldwide pandemic, mass layoffs and high unemployment, many workers are grateful to still have a job. But what happens when an employee contracts COVID-19 in the workplace, brings it home and infects one or more family members? This is a scenario that is all too common. According to one study, in nearly 20% of cases when one member of a household is infected another member will also fall ill, while a more recent study suggests it is closer to 50%. Another study indicates that close to 10% of COVID deaths in the country are attributable to an infection brought home from work by a family member.
When a worker contracts COVID on the job, in many jurisdictions the employee is entitled to worker’s compensation benefits and the employer is protected from a lawsuit by the employee. However, family members of an employee are not subject to worker’s compensation laws and may seek legal recourse against the infected family member’s employer. That’s exactly what happened in a lawsuit filed in Illinois in August 2020. Esperanza Ugalde contracted COVID from her husband, who caught it on the job at the meat processing plant where he worked. Unfortunately, Mrs. Ugalde passed away due to the infection. Her daughter filed suit, alleging the company was negligent in failing to inform employees of the outbreak at the facility and failing to take adequate steps to protect workers. The lawsuit alleges these failures were a direct cause of Mrs. Ugalde’s death.
Some commentators see parallels to prior asbestos-related “take home” claims. These lawsuits have proven very expensive to defend, with a potential for high liability. For example, a California jury awarded $27.3 million in damages to a family member who contracted mesothelioma as a result of asbestos fibers her husband brought home on his work clothes in the 1950s. It remains to be seen how the Ugalde lawsuit and others like it will turn out, but insurers will want to keep a close eye on how these cases develop.