Published on May 23rd, 2020
Even as hundreds of millions of people are still living under shelter-at-home orders around the United States, attempts to get some legal relief for wrongs inflicted have begun.
Medical workers are suing due to unsafe working conditions and retail workers have initiated lawsuits because their complaints about such inattention to their health and safety got them fired.
Passengers are suing airlines to get back the money from their cancelled flights, casino patrons are furious because they were directed from the land-based casino to the Vegas casino online and college students are demanding refunds on tuition for classes that never took place.
Insurance companies, who have denied thousands the coverage that they paid for, are being brought to account in the courts of justice and many U.S. citizens are outraged because they were denied their stimulus checks.
In the coming months, American courts will find themselves inundated with suits. According to Torsten Kracht, a litigation partner at Hunton Andrews Kurth, “I can easily foresee litigation directly related to COVID-19 continuing to be filed for the next two, three years at least. It will be litigated for the next decade, likely.”
Over the years, almost every disaster, from natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina to terrorist attacks like 9/11 and domestic violence such as Manlay Bay have spurred litigation.
After 9/11 first responders were forced to sue to force their insurers to cover their health issues that resulted from their efforts at Ground Zero.
After the 2008 recession victims who were left penniless by major financial institutions sued because these institutions misled regulators and investigators.
There are always those who will try to take advantage of a situation to deny individuals who are in a weaker position their rights. The courts are in place to address these grievances.
The coronavirus pandemic, however, is different. The breadth of legal issues is on a scale that no one can quite understand.
The virus has, thus far, killed more Americans than those who died in the 8-year-long Vietnam War and projections are that the death rate could reach the hundreds of thousands, even millions.
Aside from the emotional issues involved, COVID-19 pandemic has caused almost half the American workforce to file for unemployment benefits.
Benefits have started to come through for individuals and businesses but questions arising over who gets those stimulus payouts and who doesn’t will reverberate for years to come.
Much of the litigation concerns employment law. Joseph Sellers, a partner at Cohen Milstein, represents plaintiffs in employment and civil rights class actions. “What we are confronting now is really unprecedented in scale, complexity and how heavily it depends on science,” said Sellers.
Congress is threatening to step in to protect businesses from these lawsuits which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell calls “the biggest trial-lawyer bonanza in history.” But consumer advocates say that businesses trying to weaken laws that protect consumers and workers.
All eyes will be on the first cases for which hearings are already scheduled. They include:
Workplace safety has become a serious issue for retail workers who say that, in many cases, their employers are not protecting them.
Wando Evans, 51, worked for Walmart for 15 years and died from COVID-19, shortly after he complained of feeling well and described symptoms to store management that were consistent with the virus.
Evans’ family is alleging that store management ignored Evans when he initially mentioned his symptoms and only sent him home a few days later. Two days after he was put on sick leave, the family says, Evans was dead..
The firm alleged that store is responsible for Evans’ wrongful death. A spokesman for Walmart said that they “take the issue seriously and will respond with the court once we have been served with the complaint.”
Every airline in the world was forced to cancel the majority of its flights over government shutdown orders.
Now travelers who had purchased tickets must take the airlines to court to get refunds for cancelled flights.
One of the first suits was filed as a class action suit by ticket-holders who had booked with Delta, Southwest and United.
These passengers were offered credits and vouchers instead, even though the airlines’ terms of service stated that if a flight is cancelled, the ticket-holders are entitled to a cash refund.
A spokesman for Southwest Airlines said refunds are one option and that the company “will defend our policies accordingly as our focus is always on taking care of our customers, especially during these unprecedented times.”
At United, a spokesman said that the company wasn’t prepared to comment on a pending case but will allow customers change their travel plans as needed. The spokesman said that customers can ask for a refund.
A Delta spokesperson declared that the company will give “full refunds to eligible passengers.” The spokesperson said refunds have been issued to all customers who are part of the class-action lawsuit.
Groups of health care workers, who have been on the frontline of caring for coronavirus patients, have sued their employers because the workers weren’t provided with adequate personal protection.
The New York State Nurses Association, alleged that the Montefiore Medical Center hadn’t provided sufficient protective gear.
In a separate case, a nurse is suing the Good Samaritan Hospital in upstate New York because, she says, she contracted COVID-19 but her employers refused to reassign her or even get her proper equipment.
When the Stimulus Bill, as part of the CARES Act, set aside $349 billion for loans for small businesses, banks including the Bank of America, Wells Fargo and J.P Morgan, which were charged with distributing the funds on a first-come first-served basis, favored specific clients, even though the money was supposed to be set aside for small businesses.
A number of these small businesses are suing the banks, complaining that the banks had different rules for different applicants.
Bank lawyers counter that, aside from basic criteria, there were never any laws that barred the banks from setting their own priorities.
According to the attorney’s for Bank of America, the decision “to prioritize lending to clients who do not have lending relationships with other banks is simply an effort to direct its resources quickly and efficiently.”
Hundreds of thousands of tickets were sold for upcoming sporting events, cultural events, concerts and other happenings that ended up being cancelled due to the coronavirus shutdown.
In some cases, people holding worthless tickets have banded together to launch class-action suits against the ticket sellers who won’t refund their money.
In one case, StubHub, a ticket vendor, changed the terms of its refund policy retroactively to prevent ticket-holders from receiving a refund.
Jeff Sovern, a professor of consumer protection law at St. John’s University School of Law says that that case and others like it may be dependent on the fine print that no one ever reads but everyone checks when they purchase a service or a product.
Some businesses have language in their contract that guards against refunds but, says Sovern, even without a contract, a business might argue in court that it wasn’t possible to honor the contract under the circumstances.
U.S. colleges turned to online learning in March and sent their students home from their dorm rooms.
Some colleges offered pro-rated refunds on payments that the students had made for room and board but many students are claiming that their academic experience has been way below expectations.
They want refunds on tuition as well. Two such cases have already been filed, one against the University of Southern California and a second against Brown University.
A USC spokesperson said, “We are disappointed by the lawsuit, but believe the evidence will show that USC took extraordinary steps to ensure continuity of the educational experience for its students.”
Insurance companies are trying to mitigate their losses. IN addition to huge costs for health care, insurance companies are being hit by claims from businesses who were forced to close and are asking for compensation for business interruption.
Jared Greisman, a partner representing insurance companies at Goldberg Segalla says that the policies were written to cover “direct physical loss or damage,” not a pandemic.” “Generally,” said Greisman, “you have the absence of direct physical loss or damage.
Because the virus is a temporary or ephemeral event, carriers are denying them.’
Not surprisingly, the businesses don’t see it that way and over 100 lawsuits have already been filed against insurers who are denying payouts.
Greisman said that after the SARS outbreak 20 years ago, insurers started to specifically exclude incidence such as a pandemic from the coverage.
“Coverage without that exclusion is not common, and it’s something that’s purchased specifically as a different type of product. It’s not common that a business will secure that type of coverage.” Now it’s for the courts to decide.
In one of the biggest David vs Goliath episodes of all, a whistleblower at Amazon who publically accused the company of denying workers adequate protective equipment, is suing the company for wrongful termination.
Enesha Yurchak claimed that she was wrongfully terminated after she sounded the alarm about Amazon warehouse safety concerns and after she took time off to recover from COVID-19-like symptoms.
The incident was the final straw for Amazon Vice-President of Engineering, Tim Bray, who quit in disgust over the firing.
Yurchak had been employed as an on-site emergency medical technician at an Amazon Salem, Oregon warehouse.
Yurchak says that she began experiencing symptoms similar to those associated with the COVID-19 virus.
She took time off to recover and when she came back she witnessed employees violating safety policies and supervisors withholding masks.
When she spoke to her supervisor about the violations, her concerns were not validated and after she took more time off on sick leave, she was fired for “insubordination.”
According to the complaint, “Amazon acted with malice, showed a reckless and outrageous indifference to a highly unreasonable risk of harm, and acted with a conscious indifference to the health, safety and welfare of others.”
A private Facebook Amazon warehouse worker’s group said that at least 129 Amazon fulfillment centers have employees sick with COVID-19. At least 650 Amazon employees have tested positive for coronavirus.