Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein LLP

If employees allege that they contracted COVID-19 as the result of a workplace exposure, state workers’ compensation laws may prevent them from pursuing a negligence claim against the company. What happens, however, when the claim arises not from the employee but from a third party who alleges that he was infected due to exposure to the company’s employee? Last week, a federal district court in Maryland dismissed a lawsuit filed by the estate of a deceased spouse of an employee, claiming that he contracted COVID-19 as a result of negligence at his wife’s place of work.

In Estate of Madden v. Southwest Airlines, Co., the estate claimed that a flight attendant contracted COVID-19 as the result of lack of adequate safety measures during a mandatory training class. The lawsuit alleged that the employee passed the virus to her husband who died several weeks later. The estate claimed that Southwest had a duty of care to third parties due in part to the foreseeability of harm resulting from the alleged lack of infection control procedures.

The district court disagreed, dismissing the lawsuit. The court concluded that under Maryland law, Southwest had no legal duty to prevent infectious diseases from spreading to third parties. Finding an employer potentially liable for COVID-19 infections among employees’ family and acquaintances would open a floodgate of dubious claims, given the ubiquitous community spread of the virus in the U.S. during the pandemic.

While this decision depended on the federal court’s interpretation of state law, its conclusions may discourage other plaintiffs from attempting to establish a care of duty that goes beyond the company’s employees.

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