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Can a Customer Sue for Being Infected With COVID-19 at a Business?

Happy business owner hanging an open sign while wearing protective mask
By Richard Dahl on June 11, 2020 7:02 AM

You and your mate have been good citizens who have been sheltering in place. But you've grown tired of your own cooking and, now that businesses have begun to reopen, the idea of a nice restaurant meal is irresistible.

So, you finally dine out. But a few days later, you both get sick. Really sick. You arrange tests for COVID-19 and the results come back positive.

You're convinced the restaurant is to blame. Can you sue?

You could try. But be forewarned: trying to pin COVID-19 liability on a restaurant or store is difficult. You would need to prove that the droplets that infected you came from that establishment. Because the incubation period for COVID-19 is two weeks, you'd need to prove there was no other place you could have been infected over that time span.

But what if you could prove that the restaurant or store was negligent? What if the tables weren't spaced far enough apart? What if clerks in the store weren't wearing masks, or were wearing them improperly?

Making an argument on those grounds — that a retail establishment wasn't following generally agreed upon safety measures — is a better bet. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued guidance on how businesses should respond to the coronavirus, including ways to maintain social distancing among customers.

Lawmakers Move Toward Lawsuit Immunity for Businesses

If Senate Republicans have their way, however, it will be much harder to bring any coronavirus-related lawsuit against a business. House Democrats have passed a bill setting up a second round of $1,200 stimulus checks along with hundreds of billions of dollars in federal aid to state and local governments, but Republicans in the Senate say they will pass that legislation only if businesses are granted immunity from lawsuits.

Democrats oppose immunity, mostly because it would remove worker protections against employers who are not providing adequate safety and even reward companies that are cutting corners at the risk of their employees' health.

Both sides will be hashing this one out soon. For now, the answer about whether you can sue a restaurant or a store appears to be hanging in limbo.

Meanwhile, several states have already passed liability protections or are close to passing them. Some protect companies that provide goods and services deemed "essential," some provide protections as long as the company followed recognized safety procedures, and some provide blanket protection.

So, a final answer on whether you can sue a store or restaurant for COVID-19 infection depends, first, on where you live, and second, what kind of deal lawmakers on Capitol Hill agree to in the near future. Completion of that deal is expected by late July.

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