In these unprecedented days of social distancing, shelter-in-place orders, and quarantines, you might be wondering about the legal consequences of getting someone sick before or after you've tested positive for the coronavirus. In this article we'll discuss why we probably won't be seeing a wave of personal injury lawsuits over COVID-19 infections. But there are a whole host of other legal consequences that could come from failure to follow state and local orders meant to keep the public as safe as possible during this nationwide health crisis.
Unlike many other situations in which one person's negligent conduct causes harm to someone else—like a car accident or a slip-and-fall—the potential person-to-person spread of COVID-19 isn't likely to form any sort of viable basis for a civil lawsuit seeking monetary compensation ("damages") from the person who allegedly did the infecting. Perhaps another way to put this is, even if someone is convinced that you are the person who infected them with COVID-19, and they try to file a personal injury lawsuit against you in court, that kind of case has almost no chance of succeeding. Let's look at why this might be.
Most successful personal injury cases require the person bringing the claim (the plaintiff) to prove not only that the defendant (the person being sued) did something wrong, but also that there's a provable causal link between that misconduct and the plaintiff's harm. In the context of a potential lawsuit based on coronavirus infection, establishing personal injury liability would require showing that one identifiable person (the defendant) actually passed the infection onto another identifiable person (the plaintiff)—mere fear of being infected isn't enough. With the coronavirus so prevalent in so many communities (and so easily passed from person to person), this level of proof would be next to impossible.
A case like this might have something in common with one in which the plaintiff claims harm caused by transmission of a sexually-transmitted disease (STD), but those cases are typically based on an intentional act (sexual intercourse), intentional misrepresentation or failure to disclose key information, and a much easier-proven causal link between the defendant's wrongdoing and the corresponding harm to the plaintiff. And even with all of that being said, personal injury lawsuits based on STD transmission are still tough to prove.
Bottom line: Posing a threat to the public in general can't form the basis of a personal injury lawsuit, and it's next to impossible to prove that one person actually caused another person's illness in the midst of this pandemic. But that doesn't mean you won't face consequences if you act recklessly or negligently during this ongoing public health crisis.
While your chances of facing an injury lawsuit for contributing to the potential spread of coronavirus are slim-to-none, it's a different story when it comes to violating laws meant to protect the public. If you fail to comply with a government-issued order or instruction related to the current coronavirus pandemic, you could face any number of civil or criminal penalties.
As we discuss in our companion article on governmental emergency powers and citizen's responsibilities during the coronavirus public health crisis:
"For public health emergencies, state laws generally allow law enforcement and health officials to enforce official quarantine and isolation measures, and a person who violates the order may be detained. But governments would rather have public support and voluntary compliance to limit further reduction of scarce resources."
Let's look at a few examples of state and local laws related to conduct during a health crisis like the one the nation is currently facing.
New York City public health laws state that "No person shall intentionally or negligently cause or promote the spread of disease...by failure to observe, or by improper observance of, applicable requirements of isolation, quarantine, exclusion, treatment or other preventive measures." (New York City Health Code section 11.31)
And an Illinois law gives the state fairly wide latitude to hand down criminal punishment to anyone whose conduct runs counter to or interferes with a health-related order: "Whoever violates or refuses to obey any rule or regulation of the Department of Public Health shall be deemed guilty of a Class A misdemeanor." (Illinois Revised Statutes section 2305/8.1)
Get more details on state quarantine and isolation statutes (from the National Conference of State Legislatures).
For in-depth discussion of key legal issues related to the coronavirus pandemic, check out Nolo's special coverage: The Law and Your Legal Rights During the Coronavirus Outbreak.