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Could spreading COVID-19 come with legal consequences?

“Typically, individuals who file a lawsuit because they've been injured by the conduct of another, they do so because they're both injured and they're angry"

ST. LOUIS — While the pandemic rages on, legal immunity would mean protections for employers from lawsuits and liability claims stemming from COVID-19’s spread. An effort to grant Missouri businesses such immunity has been tabled until at least next year after Governor Mike Parson cleared it from the special session agenda.

The questions, however, remain: Can someone get in legal trouble for passing along COVID-19, or for creating a space where the virus can spread?

“Typically, individuals who file a lawsuit because they've been injured by the conduct of another, they do so because they're both injured and they're angry,” said Rob Gatter, professor at St. Louis University School of Law Center for Health Law Studies.

Gatter said this is essentially a personal injury case, requiring proof of several factors, including whether a plaintiff's harm--getting the virus--was directly caused by the defendant.

“That is just so difficult, because right now, when you consider that in many communities, the community spread of COVID is well above 10%,” he said. “The bigger the community spread in the community, the more likely it is that there are other possible sources.”

What about a business where someone gets COVID-19? While they bear certain responsibilities to keep people safe during the pandemic, it could still be hard to prove they bear the blame for someone getting sick.

RELATED: Does my employer have to say if a coworker has the virus?

“To take reasonable steps to prevent the spread of an infectious disease from one person to another is not necessarily saying that every time that that standard is broken, someone owes someone money,” Gatter said.

Even so, the process of a lawsuit can feel like its own punishment; Gatter said that’s where an immunity law would come in.

“The idea of legal immunity is to stop the lawsuit as soon as filed without having to make any sort of arguments. So that does tend to save the business from the expense of having to hire lawyers to do more than simply just say, look, there's a state law that prevents that from happening.

However, for a business demonstrably following public health orders, maintaining its duty to effort safety, could also do the same.

“Any time any of us goes out, even when we wear a mask and maintain distances and wash our hands, what was taking on some risk? The best we can do is use good habits in order to reduce that risk, to lower our probability of becoming infected."

When it comes to COVID-19 protections, Gatter says more uniform, enforceable regulations would be a better defense.

“That's so much more effective than a lawsuit could possibly be. That's what we need to happen,” he said.

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