The U.S. is a fairly litigious country, and given how easily the coronavirus has spread from coast to coast—and how serious a threat it represents—you might be wondering about potential legal liability for infecting others. Will you face a personal injury lawsuit if you spread the coronavirus to someone else?
The real question isn’t if you can get sued for infecting someone else with the coronavirus. It’s whether someone can sue you and present a viable (winnable) personal injury case based on that sort of allegation. And the answer to that question is that yes, it’s theoretically possible, but it’s also very unlikely. This is especially true if you didn't act in an intentional, reckless, or criminal manner in potentially infecting someone else.
If someone were to sue you, alleging that you infected them with the coronavirus, they would likely have one of two potential arguments (called "causes of action") under personal injury law: negligence or battery. Let's take a closer look at both.
In order to successfully sue someone for harm resulting from negligence, the injured person (the plaintiff) must prove four things:
Within the context of a lawsuit over coronavirus infection, everyone has a duty of care to act in a reasonable manner to avoid infecting others. But what constitutes reasonable behavior? If you know you have coronavirus, but you do not self-quarantine and do not practice social distancing, then this might be a breach of your legal duty—a failure to exercise reasonable care, in other words. A reasonable person who knows they have a coronavirus infection would avoid being out in public, would comply with stay-at-home orders, and would most likely self-quarantine.
But if you’re not infected with the coronavirus and have no reason to think you're infected, then this same behavior might not constitute a breach of a legal duty, although it might violate state emergency orders and other government mandates related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Next, there’s causation. This is the trickiest part of successfully suing someone for a coronavirus infection. The plaintiff would have to prove that they were infected by you, a nearly impossible task. Short of your going into a grocery store, announcing that you have the coronavirus, and spitting on fellow customers, it’s going to be hard for someone to prove that you were the source of their infection. And even in that kind of outlandish example, proving one-to-one infection would still pose a challenge.
Even if a fellow customer can produce security footage of you in the grocery store coughing into your hand before touching produce, that doesn’t mean the virus was transmitted from you to them. Perhaps they got it from the cashier, the shopping cart, a fellow customer, a surface in the store, or from one of a seemingly endless potential transmission sources before or after the grocery store visit.
Finally, the plaintiff will have to show that your conduct harmed them in such a way that justifies awarding monetary damages. This element might be clearly-established if the plaintiff got very ill and received treatment at a hospital. But most people who get the coronavirus do not need hospitalization and can handle the infection at home. This means short of extensive medical treatment or death, any damages award from a coronavirus infection lawsuit might not be large enough to justify the time and expense of filing a lawsuit.
Unlike negligence, battery is an intentional tort. This means someone must act intentionally in order to be liable. Each state will have its own definition of civil battery, but for the most part, it requires the offender to engage in intentional conduct that is harmful or offensive, and that results in physical contact with another person.
Let’s refer back to the (outrageous) hypothetical where you go into a grocery store and announce that you have coronavirus, before spitting on people. Even without a coronavirus infection, this is civil battery. You are acting in an intentional way that results in physical contact with another person. And it’s safe to say that spitting on someone else is a type of offensive contact.
Without a coronavirus infection, damages from this example of battery would be minimal, since the primary harm is likely psychological. This makes suing someone for this type of battery mostly an act of principle, as opposed to an effort to obtain fair monetary compensation.
Now let’s assume that your spitting on someone else results in their infection with coronavirus. Here we have more potential for damages, especially if the victim requires hospitalization or die from the infection (but again with the qualification that the potential for damages would be relatively small if the plaintiff only suffered minor symptoms and had an easy recovery).