Are companies liable if workers or customers get COVID-19?

VIDEO: Are companies liable if workers or customers get COVID-19?

As the coronavirus continues to claim lives, blame is already being directed at who may be legally responsible for the deadly spread.

Wrongful death lawsuits have been filed, but placing blame may not be easy for everyone who gets sick or even dies. As the coronavirus crept across the world, the epicenter for dozens of the first cases in the United States was Life Care Center in Kirkland, a nursing home where more than one-third of its residents died after contracting COVID-19, including 85-year old Twilla Morin.

KIRO 7’s Alison Grande spoke with Morin's daughter, Debbie de los Angeles, who said early on a “nurse suspected she had coronavirus, and her temp was 104.”

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De los Angeles is now suing Life Care for the alleged wrongful death of her mother.

At least 43 people associated with the Kirkland nursing home died from coronavirus, and legal claims against the facility may be among the easiest to prove, according to attorney Bill Marler.

“If you’ve got a cluster of cases, and their only common denominator is that they were at the same place, and they all share that same RNA sequencing, that’s a much easier case,” Marler told KIRO 7.

Marler, of Marler Clark in Seattle, a law firm known worldwide for its work in food safety, has recovered more than $600 million for clients made sick at restaurants or by the food supply.

According to Marler, illnesses such as E. coli and hepatitis A are far easier to pinpoint to a single source than coronavirus. E. coli and hepatitis A are originally transmitted from feces. People then get sick when they eat or drink contaminated food or beverages.

However, COVID -19 can potentially come from anywhere.

“Hepatitis A is usually found in food. Coronavirus can be in the air. It can be on a surface,” Marler explained.

So, in order to claim legal responsibility, “the real issue is going to be whether or not you can prove causation,” according to Marler.

The longtime litigator believes lawsuits filed against the cruise industry may also be successful.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 800 cases of laboratory-confirmed COVID- 19 broke -out on three cruise ships where passengers and crew members got sick.

At least 10 people died.

Within weeks, a Florida couple aboard one of those cruises filed a lawsuit seeking more than $1 million in damages, alleging gross negligence by the cruise company for allowing passengers to be exposed to coronavirus.

Marler believes the plaintiffs have a pretty good case.

“If you have a cluster of cases, let’s say, on a cruise ship where none of those people had any contact with anyone for a week or two, and they all share the same RNA sequence of coronavirus, then you’ve got this cluster of causation that’s kind of hard to get away from,” he explained.

However, other lawsuits linked to COVID- 19 may be more difficult to prove.

Two employees at a Walmart outside Chicago both died after contracting the coronavirus, including Phillip Thomas. His sister, Angela McMiller, told CBS News that none of the employees “were wearing masks and gloves.”

Since then, Walmart has installed floor markers and plexiglass to protect shoppers and employees. The retail giant is also limiting customers in its stores, providing masks and gloves for workers and taking their temperatures upon arrival.

But Tony Kalogerakos believes the measures are too little, too late.

The Chicago-area lawyer has filed a lawsuit against Walmart on behalf of the family of Wando Evans, a co-worker of Phillip Thomas who also died of COVID-19.

“These measures should have been taken from day one,” Kalogerakos said.

A Walmart spokesperson told CBS News that the company is taking the lawsuit and safety seriously.

But, it’s not known whether Evans and Thomas contracted COVID- 9 at work.

That’s why, Marler told KIRO 7, cases of employees suing employers for alleged COVID-19 contamination may be difficult to prove.

“When you get down to the nitty gritty of, did Mr. Smith get coronavirus from Restaurant A? Or did Mr. Jones get coronavirus from coming to work? It becomes incredibly complex, given the fact that they may also have taken a bus, or they may also have been walking down the street without a mask on, or they didn’t wash their hands properly, so it makes it really difficult.”

Marler believes workers who claim they contracted COVID 19 while on the job will file many lawsuits.

However, he expects most of those cases will be resolved through workers compensation claims, not lawsuits.

“If they deny workers comp, you can sue them,” Marler said. But “for the most part, the issue is still going to come down to can you prove that you got the coronavirus at the place you think you got it? And that’s going to be the challenge.”