Can You Sue Your Employer If You Were Exposed to COVID-19 at Work?

Learn about your legal options if your employer hasn’t taken precautions to limit the spread of COVID-19.

By , Legal Editor
Updated by Stacy Barrett, Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

If you get COVID-19 on the job—and believe it was your employer's fault—you might be wondering if you can sue for compensation. Most of the time, you'll be limited to filing a workers' compensation claim rather than a personal injury lawsuit. But you might have other legal options in some circumstances.

Workers' Comp Might Be Your Only Recourse After Getting COVID-19 on the Job

The workers' compensation system is a trade-off: On the one hand, you can receive benefits for a work-related injury or illness relatively quickly, without having to prove that your employer was at fault. On the other hand, workers' comp is your "exclusive remedy," meaning you can't sue your employer for the losses stemming from your injury or illness (including pain and suffering).

Workers' compensation generally covers diseases that employees contract because of their work—or in legal jargon, occupational diseases "arising out of and in the course of employment" (AOE/COE). Although common infectious diseases like the flu aren't considered occupational illnesses, some states are taking action to extend workers' compensation coverage to include certain workers impacted by COVID-19.

Would an Employer's Deliberate Failure to Protect Workers from Coronavirus Exposure Open the Door to Lawsuits?

Whether you were an essential employee during shelter-in-place orders or you returned to the workplace after those orders were lifted, you might have faced an increased risk of COVID-19 exposure if your employer failed to take reasonable steps to minimize that hazard, such as:

  • providing adequate face masks or other personal protective equipment (PPE) appropriate for your workplace
  • introducing social-distancing measures like staggering schedules and rearranging workstations, and
  • rigorously cleaning and sanitizing the workplace, especially high-touch equipment.

Your ability to sue your employer depends on the laws in your state, how courts interpret those laws, and evolving guidelines from government agencies and authorities. If you have questions about when to sue after contracting COVID-19 at work, talk to a lawyer who is up to date on the latest developments in employment and personal injury law in your state.

COVID-19 Liability Shields Also Protect Employers From Workers' Lawsuits

Lawmakers in thirty or so states passed laws in 2020 and 2021 designed to protect businesses from COVID-19 lawsuits filed by workers, customers, and vendors.

These COVID-19 liability shield laws generally protect businesses from lawsuits that try to hold them legally responsible for a person's COVID-19 exposure, injury, or death unless the person suing can prove gross negligence, willful misconduct, or failure to follow public health orders. The specific details of the laws vary from state to state.

Business groups say the liability shield laws are necessary to protect companies and small businesses from a wave of lawsuits. Critics argue that the laws give businesses the green light to take few or no precautions to limit the spread of the virus.

Other Lawsuits Related to Coronavirus Hazards in the Workplace

Employees (and their lawyers) are pursuing other legal options to address COVID-related risks in the workplace. For example:

  • Creation of a public nuisance. Some employees (and sometimes infected family members) have sued their employers under public-nuisance laws for endangering the community by failing to take basic safety precautions to minimize the spread of COVID-19 among employees, their families, and customers. These lawsuits typically request court orders requiring employers to take steps to remedy unsafe working conditions. In two of these cases, judges issued preliminary injunctions against McDonald's franchises in Illinois and California, ordering them to take certain steps to fix public health lapses at their workplaces. Meanwhile, however, federal judges dismissed similar lawsuits against Amazon and a giant meat processor, saying that it's up to OSHA to decide if the employers were doing enough to protect their workers from COVID-19.
  • Wrongful termination. Some workers have filed "whistleblower" wrongful termination suits claiming that they were illegally fired in retaliation for complaining about inadequate PPE or other safety measures. In other wrongful termination lawsuits, former employees alleged that they were fired for refusing to work in violation of shelter-in-place orders, in violation of doctor's orders, or in hazardous conditions.
  • Wrongful constructive termination. Former corrections officers at a private immigration detention center sued their former employer, claiming they were forced to quit because they were put in danger by the lack of PPE or other measures to limit the spread of COVID-19 at a private immigration detention center.

An Attorney Can Help You Seek Compensation

If you contracted COVID-19 on the job—or you think you have good reason to sue your current or former employer because of its conduct in relation to the coronavirus pandemic—you should speak to an attorney who's experienced in workers' compensation and/or employment law. A lawyer who's up to speed on the changing legal landscape related to the coronavirus should be able to explain your options for seeking compensation for the losses you've suffered—whether those losses came from contracting the disease at work or from taking steps to avoid that fate.

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