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May 13, 2020 by Daniel Farber

Free to Be Negligent?

Originally published on Legal Planet. Reprinted with permission.

Sen. Mitch McConnell is demanding that any future coronavirus relief law provide a litigation shield for businesses, and other conservative and business interests have made similar proposals. So far, the supporters of these proposals have engaged in some dramatic handwaving but haven't begun to make a reasoned argument in support of a litigation shield.

In this post, I'm going to limit myself to negligence suits against businesses. Basically, these lawsuits claim the plaintiff got the virus due to the failure of a business to take reasonable safety precautions.

Even without a business shield, these are not going to be easy cases to win. Plaintiffs will have to show that they were exposed to the virus due to the defendant's business operation, that better precautions would have prevented the exposure, and that they weren't exposed elsewhere.

Tort lawyers may be reluctant to take on such claims except in the unusual cases where there was no other significant exposure to the virus. In addition, the plaintiff will have to show that the business failed to take reasonable precautions, which won't be easy in many cases. Even if they prove all that, the damage award …

May 12, 2020 by James Goodwin
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Yesterday, a group of 20 Center for Progressive Reform (CPR) Board Members, Member Scholars, and staff joined a letter to House and Senate leaders calling on them to reject efforts to attach to future COVID-19 pandemic-related legislation provisions that would interfere with the ability of workers, consumers, and members of their families to hold businesses accountable when their unreasonably dangerous actions have caused workers or consumers to contract the virus. Instead, as the letter urges, lawmakers should ensure that our courthouse doors remain open to all Americans to pursue any meritorious civil justice claims for injuries they suffer arising from companies' failure to guard against the spread of the coronavirus.

The letter comes as the Senate Judiciary Committee is set to hold a hearing this afternoon on the topic of “Examining Liability During the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Insulating corporations against public accountability through the courts has long been …

May 11, 2020 by John Echeverria
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Anyone following the news about the coronavirus knows about the vocal opposition by libertarians and other right-wing extremists to government measures designed to control the pandemic. On television, the coverage has focused on angry, gun-toting protesters. But there's another avenue of opposition to the virus-related safeguards, one that's less photogenic but no less divorced from reality. In recent weeks, a number of land and business owners have filed lawsuits claiming stay-at-home orders and business closings represent “takings” of private property under the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. These takings claims should be – and likely will be – rejected based on firm U.S. Supreme Court precedent.

In the absence of clear direction from the Trump administration, states have been left largely to themselves to devise emergency rules designed to “flatten the curve’” of new coronavirus cases and reduce the toll of sickness and death. Most states …

May 8, 2020 by Matthew Freeman
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In the latest episode of CPR Board President Rob Verchick's Connect the Dots podcast, he and CPR Member Scholars Michael Duff and Thomas McGarity explore worker safety issues in the era of the coronavirus.

McGarity begins the conversation with the story of Annie Grant, a 15-year veteran of the packing line at a Tyson Food poultry processing plant in Camilla, Georgia. One morning in late March, weeks after the nation had awakened to the danger of the coronavirus and states had begun locking down, she felt feverish. When her children urged her to stay home rather than work with a fever on the chilled poultry line, she told them that the company insisted that she continue to work. Furthermore, Tyson was offering a $500 bonus to employees if they worked for three months without missing a day. So, she went in to work, where she labored shoulder-to-shoulder …

May 7, 2020 by Matthew Freeman
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With the majority of states beginning to loosen their COVID-19 restrictions, many Americans who've been sheltering in place for the past few weeks are now facing a difficult choice: Go back to workplaces that might not be safe, or risk being fired. They'll face similar choices at grocery stores, pharmacies, home centers, and everywhere else they go where they must rely on the precautions taken by owners, managers, and others for their safety.

Eager to fire up the economy with an election approaching, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has announced his intention to block a fourth stimulus bill if it does not include a provision extending broad immunity to businesses for any COVID-19 infections they cause workers or customers. If adopted, such immunity from litigation would leave us all at the not-so-tender mercies of the marketplace. Shielded from accountability and stung by lost business, too many …

May 7, 2020 by Daniel Farber
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Originally published on Legal Planet. Reprinted with permission.

If we get a vaccine against a national epidemic, could Congress pass a law requiring everyone to get vaccinated? That very question was asked during the Supreme Court argument in the 2012 constitutional challenge to Obamacare’s individual mandate. The lawyer challenging Obamacare said, “No, Congress couldn’t do that.”

What’s shocking is that this may have been the correct answer. Conservatives on the Supreme Court have curtailed Congress’s ability to legislate about anything other than economic transactions, and an epidemic is not an economic transaction.

The 2012 oral argument in the Supreme Court

JUSTICE BREYER: I’m just picking on something. I’d like to just — if it turned out there was some terrible epidemic sweeping the United States, and we couldn’t say that more than 40 or 50 percent . . . — you’d say the Federal …

May 6, 2020 by Matthew Freeman
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One of the most telling aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic is has been its disparate impact on minority communities in the United States. At least three factors seem to be at work in the elevated death rate: uneven access to health care, greater prevalence of preexisting (and often inadequately treated) comorbidities, and greater likelihood of on-the-job exposure. Writing in the Boston Globe last week, CPR Member Scholar Shalanda Baker, together with co-authors Alecia McGregor, Camara Jones, and Michelle Morse, point out yet another way that the pandemic is taking a particular toll on low-income communities and communities of color.

They point to a decision by a for-profit hospital chain, Steward Health Care, to convert Carney Hospital in Dorchester, Mass., which under normal conditions serves as a safety net hospital for low-income residents, into a dedicated COVID-19 hospital.

The co-authors note that while the decision was initially deemed …

May 6, 2020 by Michael C. Duff
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In what for me is an ominous development, the Smithfield Foods public nuisance case, about which I blogged earlier, has been summarily denied by a Missouri federal district court and the case has been dismissed. The decision took all of twelve days.

In a nutshell, the court accepted the primary jurisdiction arguments that I have previously discussed but will not repeat here. Sometimes cases are illustrative of clear legal principles. This, for me, is not one of those cases. Sometimes cases set "mood points." And I fear that is the situation here. I have great concern about the prospect for an unreflective, anti-liability fervor enveloping the Great Reopening, though this decision did not directly reach questions of liability that could impact state workers' compensation or tort law. Narrowly read, the heart of the case is …

May 5, 2020 by Michael C. Duff
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Cross-posted by permission from Workers' Compensation Law Prof Blog.


As Senate Republicans and corporations continue to lobby for the broadest possible “liability shields” in connection with the Great Reopening, a novel lawsuit framed in terms of public nuisance theory is being litigated in a Missouri federal court. From the Nolo Plain-English Legal Dictionary, a public nuisance is defined as “[a]n activity or thing that affects the health, safety, or morals of a community. It is distinguished from a private nuisance, which harms only a neighbor or a few individuals. For example, a factory that spews out clouds of noxious fumes is a public nuisance, but playing drums at three in the morning is a private nuisance bothering only the immediate neighbors.”

So, under the theory of the case I'm about to discuss, when a meat-packing plant does not conform to, for example, CDC social-distancing guidelines, it …

May 5, 2020 by Darya Minovi
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As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads across the globe, public health data continues to show that the virus’s worst effects are felt by communities already weighed down by the burden of multiple social and environmental stressors. As of May 3, in CPR’s home city of Washington, DC, African Americans account for 79 percent of coronavirus deaths, despite making up only 45 percent of the city’s population and 47 percent of diagnosed cases. This inequitable trend appears to be playing out across the country.

Widely cited research from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health has also connected long-term air pollution exposure and coronavirus mortality, prompting researchers to explore this link in their own communities. Using Harvard’s data, Tulane University’s Environmental Law Clinic mapped particulate matter emissions against parish-level health and COVID-19 data in Louisiana. Their findings confirmed the suspicions of local …

CPR HOMEPAGE
More on CPR's Work & Scholars.
Sept. 17, 2020

Pandemic Spawns Dangerous Relaxation of Environmental Regulations

Sept. 16, 2020

The Pandemic's Toll on Science

Sept. 8, 2020

Pandemic's Other Casualty: Expertise

Sept. 3, 2020

It's Time for Maryland to Protect Its Poultry Workers

Aug. 24, 2020

Pandemic Lessons in Governance

July 29, 2020

Empowering Workers to Sue Employers for Dangerous Working Conditions

July 29, 2020

Who Could Possibly Have Guessed?