COVID-19 and Workers’ Comp: What Current Court Cases Could Mean for the Industry

Five recent suits give employers a peek at the COVID-19-related litigation they could face if they mismanage employee safety during the pandemic.
By: | July 26, 2020
COVID-19 workers' comp lawsuits

When the novel coronavirus first arrived in the United States, businesses and their insurers began bracing themselves for losses.

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Businesses have since sued their insurance companies after their business interruption claims were denied and, on the workers’ compensation end, employers have been facing lawsuits from employees alleging that public health guidelines were not adhered to. 

A new NCCI report compiles some recent COVID-19 workers’ comp lawsuits. Here are the five cases they identified and the key lessons to take away for employers.

COVID-19 Workers’ Comp Lawsuits

1) Illinois Manufacturers’ Association v. Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission: Filed in April, this case is one of the first related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In this case, a circuit court judge blocked an emergency amendment to the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act that would have granted a presumption to any essential worker who contracted COVID-19, even if they got the disease while working from home. 

This temporary restraining order was issued following a lawsuit filed by the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association and the Illinois Retail Merchants Association against emergency amendments adopted by the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission. The suit was supported by more than two dozen business groups. 

After the court’s decision, the Workers’ Compensation Commission withdrew the emergency amendment and by the end of April a motion to dismiss the temporary restraining order was filed. The state has since passed a different workers’ comp presumption law for workers who contract COVID-19. 

2) Evans v. Walmart, Inc.:  The family of a Walmart employee who died due to complications from COVID-19 is suing the corporation for negligence and recklessness. The plaintiff’s attorneys say that this is Illinois first wrongful death suit related to the pandemic.  

The suit, which was filed in April, alleges that “several employees and individuals at the store were exhibiting signs and symptoms of the virus,” and that another employee also died of COVID-19 complications just a few days later, Bloomberg Law reports. 

Evergreen LLC, which allegedly owned, managed, and maintained the shopping center where the store is located, is also named as a defendant in the lawsuit. The plaintiff is seeking over $50,000 plus legal expenses.   

Walmart filed a motion to dismiss on June 25 on the grounds that the lawsuit is barred by the exclusive remedy provision of the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act. 

3) Benjamin v. JBS: In this case filed in May, the estate of a Pennsylvania meat processing plant worker is suing JBS, the world’s largest processor of fresh beef and pork, for negligence and gross negligence. 

The suit alleges that the company ignored the risk of COVID-19 to its employees and failed to provide them with proper personal protective equipment. 

Pursuing the suit is the estate of a worker who also served as a union representative and died after contracting COVID-19.

In June, the company filed a motion to dismiss, claiming that the exclusive remedy provision in the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act bars the employee’s complaints. 

4) Massey v. McDonald’s Corporation: Fast-food giant McDonald’s faces a lawsuit from a group of Chicago workers over whether the company adhered to expert recommendations and government guidance on how to best protect workers and the public from the spread of COVID-19.

In May, the workers filed a lawsuit claiming that the company’s inadequate COVID-19 safeguards constituted a public nuisance. 

In June, the court entered a preliminary injunction which required McDonald’s to provide social-distance training and to enforce mask wearing policies. 

5) Palmer v. Amazon.com Inc.: The most recently filed case, Palmer v. Amazon.com Inc. alleges that Amazon failed to comply with local, state and federal public health guidelines during the pandemic and thus caused injury and death to the employees and their families.

Filed by three Staten Island warehouse workers in June, the suit questions the company’s efforts to track and trace the spread of the virus among workers, with one worker alleging that he was told to come in to work, even though he had come in contact with a supervisor who tested positive for the virus, CNBC reports

Rather than seek monetary relief, the plaintiffs are asking for an injunction that would require Amazon to comply with public health guidelines and an order that would declare the company a public nuisance.  

Takeaways

While these cases are still pending, they can give companies an idea of the kind of behavior and policies that may lead a worker to sue during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Many of the COVID-19 workers’ comp lawsuits are threaded together by the common theme of employee safety. Workers are alleging their employers failed to adhere to public health guidelines and thus put the employees at risk of sickness or death. 

Given this common theme, the best way for employers to protect themselves from litigation may be to enforce public health guidelines, including mask-wearing and social distancing for all of their employees, even if the states they live in don’t yet require those measures. 

In many of these cases, it’s too early to tell where the courts’ and juries’ sympathies will lie, but given the recent trend toward nuclear verdicts and the public’s knowledge of the devastating effects of COVID-19, it would be reasonable for employers to fear substantial jury awards in these lawsuits go to trial. &

Courtney DuChene is a staff writer at Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Risk Scenario

The Betrayal of Elizabeth

In this Risk Scenario, Risk & Insurance explores what might happen in the event a telemedicine or similar home health visit violates a patient's privacy. What consequences await when a young girl's tele visit goes viral?
By: | October 12, 2020
Risk Scenarios are created by Risk & Insurance editors along with leading industry partners. The hypothetical, yet realistic stories, showcase emerging risks that can result in significant losses if not properly addressed.

Disclaimer: The events depicted in this scenario are fictitious. Any similarity to any corporation or person, living or dead, is merely coincidental.

PART ONE: CRACKS IN THE FOUNDATION

Elizabeth Cunningham seemingly had it all. The daughter of two well-established professionals — her father was a personal injury attorney, her mother, also an attorney, had her own estate planning practice — she grew up in a house in Maryland horse country with lots of love and the financial security that can iron out at least some of life’s problems.

Tall, good-looking and talented, Elizabeth was moving through her junior year at the University of Pennsylvania in seemingly good order; check that, very good order, by all appearances.

Her pre-med grades were outstanding. Despite the heavy load of her course work, she’d even managed to place in the Penn Relays in the mile, in the spring of her sophomore season, in May of 2019.

But the winter of 2019/2020 brought challenges, challenges that festered below the surface, known only to her and a couple of close friends.

First came betrayal at the hands of her boyfriend, Tom, right around Thanksgiving. She saw a message pop up on his phone from Rebecca, a young woman she thought was their friend. As it turned out, Rebecca and Tom had been intimate together, and both seemed game to do it again.

Reeling, her holiday mood shattered and her relationship with Tom fractured, Elizabeth was beset by deep feelings of anxiety. As the winter gray became more dense and forbidding, the anxiety grew.

Fed up, she broke up with Tom just after Christmas. What looked like a promising start to 2020 now didn’t feel as joyous.

Right around the end of the year, she plucked a copy of her father’s New York Times from the table in his study. A budding physician, her eyes were drawn to a piece about an outbreak of a highly contagious virus in Wuhan, China.

“Sounds dreadful,” she said to herself.

Within three months, anxiety gnawed at Elizabeth daily as she sat cloistered in her family’s house in Bel Air, Maryland.

It didn’t help matters that her brother, Billy, a high school senior and a constant thorn in her side, was cloistered with her.

She felt like she was suffocating.

One night in early May, feeling shutdown and unable to bring herself to tell her parents about her true condition, Elizabeth reached out to her family physician for help.

Dr. Johnson had been Elizabeth’s doctor for a number of years and, being from a small town, Elizabeth had grown up and gone to school with Dr. Johnson’s son Evan. In fact, back in high school, Evan had asked Elizabeth out once. Not interested, Elizabeth had declined Evan’s advances and did not give this a second thought.

Dr. Johnson’s practice had recently been acquired by a Virginia-based hospital system, Medwell, so when Elizabeth called the office, she was first patched through to Medwell’s receptionist/scheduling service. Within 30 minutes, an online Telehealth consult had been arranged for her to speak directly with Dr. Johnson.

Due to the pandemic, Dr. Johnson called from the office in her home. The doctor was kind. She was practiced.

“So can you tell me what’s going on?” she said.

Elizabeth took a deep breath. She tried to fight what was happening. But she could not. Tears started streaming down her face.

“It’s just… It’s just…” she managed to stammer.

The doctor waited patiently. “It’s okay,” she said. “Just take your time.”

Elizabeth took a deep breath. “It’s like I can’t manage my own mind anymore. It’s nonstop. It won’t turn off…”

More tears streamed down her face.

Patiently, with compassion, the doctor walked Elizabeth through what she might be experiencing. The doctor recommended a follow-up with Medwell’s psychology department.

“Okay,” Elizabeth said, some semblance of relief passing through her.

Unbeknownst to Dr. Johnson, her office door had not been completely closed. During the telehealth call, Evan stopped by his mother’s office to ask her a question. Before knocking he overheard Elizabeth talking and decided to listen in.

PART TWO: BETRAYAL

As Elizabeth was finding the courage to open up to Dr. Johnson about her psychological condition, Evan was recording her with his smartphone through a crack in the doorway.

Spurred by who knows what — his attraction to her, his irritation at being rejected, the idleness of the COVID quarantine — it really didn’t matter. Evan posted his recording of Elizabeth to his Instagram feed.

#CantManageMyMind, #CrazyGirl, #HelpMeDoctorImBeautiful is just some of what followed.

Elizabeth and Evan were both well-liked and very well connected on social media. The posts, shares and reactions that followed Evan’s digital betrayal numbered in the hundreds. Each one of them a knife into the already troubled soul of Elizabeth Cunningham.

By noon of the following day, her well-connected father unleashed the dogs of war.

Rand Davis, the risk manager for the Medwell Health System, a 15-hospital health care company based in Alexandria, Virginia was just finishing lunch when he got a call from the company’s general counsel, Emily Vittorio.

“Yes?” Rand said. He and Emily were accustomed to being quick and blunt with each other. They didn’t have time for much else.

“I just picked up a notice of intent to sue from a personal injury attorney in Bel Air, Maryland. It seems his daughter was in a teleconference with one of our docs. She was experiencing anxiety, the daughter that is. The doctor’s son recorded the call and posted it to social media.”

“Great. Thanks, kid,” Rand said.

“His attorneys want to initiate a discovery dialogue on Monday,” Emily said.

It was Thursday. Rand’s dreams of slipping onto his fishing boat over the weekend evaporated, just like that. He closed his eyes and tilted his face up to the heavens.

Wasn’t it enough that he and the other members of the C-suite fought tooth and nail to keep thousands of people safe and treat them during the COVID-crisis?

He’d watched the explosion in the use of telemedicine with a mixture of awe and alarm. On the one hand, they were saving lives. On the other hand, they were opening themselves to exposures under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. He just knew it.

He and his colleagues tried to do the right thing. But what they were doing, overwhelmed as they were, was simply not enough.

PART THREE: FALLING DOMINOES

Within the space of two weeks, the torture suffered by Elizabeth Cunningham grew into a class action against Medwell.

In addition to the violation of her privacy, the investigation by Mr. Cunningham’s attorneys revealed the following:

Medwell’s telemedicine component, as needed and well-intended as it was, lacked a viable informed consent protocol.

The consultation with Elizabeth, and as it turned out, hundreds of additional patients in Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, violated telemedicine regulations in all three states.

Numerous practitioners in the system took part in teleconferences with patients in states in which they were not credentialed to provide that service.

Even if Evan hadn’t cracked open Dr. Johnson’s door and surreptitiously recorded her conversation with Elizabeth, the Medwell telehealth system was found to be insecure — yet another violation of HIPAA.

The amount sought in the class action was $100 million. In an era of social inflation, with jury awards that were once unthinkable becoming commonplace, Medwell was standing squarely in the crosshairs of a liability jury decision that was going to devour entire towers of its insurance program.

Adding another layer of certain pain to the equation was that the case would be heard in Baltimore, a jurisdiction where plaintiffs’ attorneys tended to dance out of courtrooms with millions in their pockets.

That fall, Rand sat with his broker on a call with a specialty insurer, talking about renewals of the group’s general liability, cyber and professional liability programs.

“Yeah, we were kind of hoping to keep the increases on all three at less than 25%,” the broker said breezily.

There was a long silence from the underwriters at the other end of the phone.

“To be honest, we’re borderline about being able to offer you any cover at all,” one of the lead underwriters said.

Rand just sat silently and waited for another shoe to drop.

“Well, what can you do?” the broker said, with hope draining from his voice.

The conversation that followed would propel Rand and his broker on the difficult, next to impossible path of trying to find coverage, with general liability underwriters in full retreat, professional liability underwriters looking for double digit increases and cyber underwriters asking very pointed questions about the health system’s risk management.

Elizabeth, a strong young woman with a good support network, would eventually recover from the damage done to her.

Medwell’s relationships with the insurance markets looked like it almost never would. &

Bar-Lessons-Learned---Partner's-Content-V1b

Risk & Insurance® partnered with Allied World to produce this scenario. Below are Allied World’s recommendations on how to prevent the losses presented in the scenario. This perspective is not an editorial opinion of Risk & Insurance.®.

The use of telehealth has exponentially accelerated with the advent of COVID-19. Few health care providers were prepared for this shift. Health care organizations should confirm that Telehealth coverage is included in their Medical Professional, General Liability and Cyber policies, and to what extent. Concerns around Telehealth focus on HIPAA compliance and the internal policies in place to meet the federal and state standards and best practices for privacy and quality care. As states open businesses and the crisis abates, will pre-COVID-19 telehealth policies and regulations once again be enforced?

Risk Management Considerations:

The same ethical and standard of care issues around caring for patients face-to-face in an office apply in telehealth settings:

  • maintain a strong patient-physician relationship;
  • protect patient privacy; and
  • seek the best possible outcome.

Telehealth can create challenges around “informed consent.” It is critical to inform patients of the potential benefits and risks of telehealth (including privacy and security), ensure the use of HIPAA compliant platforms and make sure there is a good level of understanding of the scope of telehealth. Providers must be aware of the regulatory and licensure requirements in the state where the patient is located, as well as those of the state in which they are licensed.

A professional and private environment should be maintained for patient privacy and confidentiality. Best practices must be in place and followed. Medical professionals who engage in telehealth should be fully trained in operating the technology. Patients must also be instructed in its use and provided instructions on what to do if there are technical difficulties.

This case study is for illustrative purposes only and is not intended to be a summary of, and does not in any way vary, the actual coverage available to a policyholder under any insurance policy. Actual coverage for specific claims will be determined by the actual policy language and will be based on the specific facts and circumstances of the claim. Consult your insurance advisors or legal counsel for guidance on your organization’s policies and coverage matters and other issues specific to your organization.

This information is provided as a general overview for agents and brokers. Coverage will be underwritten by an insurance subsidiary of Allied World Assurance Company Holdings, Ltd, a Fairfax company (“Allied World”). Such subsidiaries currently carry an A.M. Best rating of “A” (Excellent), a Moody’s rating of “A3” (Good) and a Standard & Poor’s rating of “A-” (Strong), as applicable. Coverage is offered only through licensed agents and brokers. Actual coverage may vary and is subject to policy language as issued. Coverage may not be available in all jurisdictions. Risk management services are provided or arranged through AWAC Services Company, a member company of Allied World. © 2020 Allied World Assurance Company Holdings, Ltd. All rights reserved.




Dan Reynolds is editor-in-chief of Risk & Insurance. He can be reached at [email protected]