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