Florida, like the rest of the United States and the world, is struggling to keep COVID-19—or coronavirus—under control. COVID-19 is caused by a novel virus, which means it is an illness humanity has never encountered before and thus has no immunity to. As a result, while not everyone will get sick if infected, most people who come into contact with the virus have a high chance of becoming infected.
Unfortunately, medical science has already determined that some people, especially those with pre-existing medical conditions such as respiratory illnesses or obesity, have a higher likelihood of being severely affected. For some, including elderly individuals with chronic diseases, the disease can potentially be fatal.
Under ordinary circumstances, the idea of taking legal action because of an illness is highly unlikely. If you catch a cold from someone else, for example, even if it inconveniences you, no lawyer will take your case and sue the person who gave you that cold. With COVID-19, however, things may be different, depending on the circumstances.
There is a civil law in Florida and the rest of the USA against negligence. While negligence is not a criminal violation, the law is designed to protect people from harm. If someone knows that an aspect of their property or their actions may cause damage to other people but they ignore that risk and someone else gets injured, that is considered negligence. People who have committed an act of negligence can be taken to court and sued if there is enough evidence to convince a judge or jury that the harm they caused could have been avoided if they had exercised more responsibility and duty of care.
In the case of COVID-19, like the common cold, there are many instances where it is impossible to prove negligence. Some people with COVID-19 are asymptomatic, which means that even if they are infected, they show no symptoms and can unknowingly pass the virus on to others. This is difficult to prove in court.
However, in other situations, negligence is easy to prove. In New Hampshire, for example, the first COVID-19 patient diagnosed there was a hospital staff member. He was advised of his medical condition and the risk of him being a vector, that is, a delivery system for the virus to infect others. He was told that he should isolate himself so as not to put others at risk of infection. However, he ignored the medical guidelines and attended a special event, where he proceeded to infect at least one additional person.
In this instance, there is a clear line of negligence that can be proven in court. The first diagnosed patient was informed of the risk and deliberately ignored it because he didn’t want to miss an invitation-only event. The second New Hampshire resident diagnosed with COVID-19 attended this event, had close contact with the first patient, and had no probable exposure to anyone else who might have carried the virus.
If negligence can be proven—mainly if it results in someone becoming severely affected—that can have legal repercussions. However, things become more serious if the infection results in death, which is the case with COVID-19 for vulnerable populations in America.
For example, the elderly, especially if they have respiratory conditions, are at a higher risk of death from COVID-19 than younger Americans. Hypothetically, someone diagnosed with COVID-19 is advised to avoid putting others at risk.
However, if that person ignores a medical and legal warning, visits an elderly care facility, and causes infection resulting in fatalities, that is wrongful death negligence.
If many people at the elderly care facility become infected and die as a result of one person ignoring medical risks, that may even be a case of negligent homicide. Serious cases of wrongful death, such as drunk drivers killing others in car accidents, show that carelessness can lead to not just civil lawsuits but also criminal charges.
In most cases, the infection of others or even their death does not have legal ramifications. But when people know they pose an infectious risk and ignore medical and legal guidance, this may open the way for victims to get justice in court through personal injury lawsuits.