The COVID-19 pandemic is anything but fair. It has taken the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and has gravely sickened millions more. Any death that results from COVID-19 feels like it should be classified as a “wrongful death” simply because everything about this virus feels so wrong.
But in the eyes of the law, wrongful death means something very different. While most deaths can feel untimely and unfair, a wrongful death is classified as a claim against a person who can be held directly liable for a death that could have been prevented. When it comes to figuring out how COVID-19 and wrongful death lawsuits intertwine, there’s still a lot of gray area to sift through. But we believe the future holds hope.
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Entering New Territory
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began in early 2020, more than 1,000 wrongful death lawsuits have been filed against employers for allegedly failing to keep their place of employment safe from the spread of the virus. From a legal standpoint, the biggest question on the mind at this stage is: Are there currently any precedents in place that would allow for these plaintiffs to win their cases? The answer for the time being is: They may be on their way.
Every day, employers are learning new ways to maintain levels of safety in their workplace that their employees find secure and comfortable, and which also adhere to the legal standards that are building alongside them simultaneously. But if a business fails to comply with these ongoing changes and standards, it’s reasonable to think they may be held accountable for the deaths of their employees — so long as those deaths are found to be a direct result of the employer’s negligence. And this is where each case that’s brought to court serves its unique purpose.
We’re entering new territory in every aspect of this pandemic, and the laws surrounding it are no exception. Setting precedent is the first step in any new realm of claims, cases, and laws, and until it’s set, the best way forward is to continue bringing your cases to attention and trying them so that laws can be adapted based on their outcomes.
In early February 2021, Florida State Senator Jeff Brandes filed “Senate Bill 74, COVID-19-related Claims Against Health Care Providers.” This proposed bill suggests implementing strong protections from civil liability for health care providers across the state of Florida who have served Florida residents either suffering from COVID-19 or dealing with other illness and injury during the COVID-19 crisis.
Important Cases to Watch
Setting precedent results from cases that are brought to trial and the decisions and compensations that are awarded from them. There are “firsts” in every new field of law and type of case, and for COVID-19, these precedent-setting scenarios are already making themselves known.
Gutierrez vs. Publix Super Markets Inc.
This is one of the more attention-grabbing COVID-19-related wrongful death cases in the state of Florida. The family of a deceased Publix deli counter worker, Gerardo Gutierrez, filed a lawsuit against the supermarket chain for actively forbidding their employees from wearing protective face masks early in the first stages of the pandemic. At that time, 70-year-old Gutierrez allegedly contracted COVID-19 from a coworker who tested positive, and subsequently passed away.
Lanzo vs. Generations Behavioral Health
Raymond Lanzo worked as a nurse at a mental health facility in the state of Ohio before contracting COVID-19 and passing away. His wife is now seeking more than $25,000 in damages against Generations Behavioral Health, alleging the facility was negligent in their requirement to follow COVID-19 guidelines issued by the state of Ohio, which led to Lanzo’s exposure and death.
Norwood vs. Rodi Marine LLC
Michael Norwood is a now-deceased crew member who worked for this marine shipping company on a supply vessel based off the coast. His wife is filing a suit against the shipping company for putting her husband in danger when they dispatched him to Alabama to perform services for the company. This was where he experienced the COVID-19 exposure that led to his death.
Iniguez vs. Aurora Packing Company, Inc.
In an interestingly complex scenario, Erika Iniguez, who is the administrator of the estate of Esperanza Ugalde, now deceased, is filing a lawsuit against the meatpacking company who employed Ugalde’s husband. Aurora Packing Company was allegedly negligent and allowed Ricardo Ugalde to contract COVID-19 while he worked for them. In turn, he infected his wife, who later died.
Montgomery vs. Prevarian Senior Living, LP
The family of Monica Montgomery, who worked as a dietary supervisor for Prevarian Senior Living for twelve years, is suing the company for her wrongful death. They allege gross negligence on the part of the company for not implementing necessary safety protocols that led to Montgomery experiencing an increased risk of exposure to COVID-19 in the facility. Her family is seeking $1 million in damages and a jury trial.
Will These Cases Win?
Even though several of these lawsuits were filed within the first half of 2020, it’s still too early to say whether or not the plaintiffs will succeed in receiving the damages they believe they are owed. Evidence is still being gathered, testimony heard, and cases tried in court. But even in their ongoing stages, each of these cases — along with hundreds more — pose interesting scenarios that are worth studying closely.
The biggest challenge with each lies in proving it was, in fact, each victim’s place of employment that directly caused them to contract the virus. From there, the challenges vary; in the case of Michael Norwood, was it within his employer’s right to send him to a new location for work, even knowing the risks of doing so? In the case of the Ugalde family, can the employer be sued for the death of one of their employee’s spouses, rather than the death of an employee themselves? There are many moving pieces to each case, making each one unique — which is precisely what makes each one a tool for setting precedent.
While The Whisler Law Firm may not be able to yet confidently predict the outcomes of these types of cases, our years of experience working in the realms of wrongful death and workers’ compensation lead us to believe that they are still cases worth fighting for. If any of the above cases sound like a situation you may be experiencing, contact our team. Even if your scenario is different, if you believe negligence surrounding COVID-19 has caused you to lose someone you love, we want to help. Call us at 833-529-5677 or schedule a free consultation with us. You pay us nothing unless we win your case, no matter what kind of precedent currently surrounds it.