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Using waivers to avoid getting sued for COVID-19 infections

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In these times of pandemic, signs and forms like this purporting to shield the owner of a facility against liability have become a fixture in workplaces and other facilities. You might even be using them at your own office. The idea is to notify clients, vendors and other visitors (which, for simplicity’s sake, we’ll refer to collectively as “visitors”) that they’re entering the facility at their own risk and in so doing, waiving their rights to sue the owner for any illness or injury they suffer while on the premises. Of course, that includes COVID-19 infection. It seems like a simple, cost-effective way to limit liability risks to visitors who may claim they got infected while they were at your office. But will it work?

The answer may depend, in large part, on how you draft your waiver.

Your potential liability for visitors’ COVID-19 infections

OSHA laws require you to protect workers against COVID-19 infection by following current public health guidelines on social distancing, hygiene, disinfection, etc. Failure to do so can result in stop-work orders, OSHA fines, workers’ comp claims and other nasty legal consequences. But for the most part, you won’t have to worry about getting sued by your workers because workers’ comp laws bar workers from suing their employers for work-related illnesses and injuries.

However, workers’ comp doesn’t bar lawsuits by non-workers who get ill or injured while visiting your facility. Stated differently, as the owner of a facility, you have a legal duty to protect visitors. That duty stems principally from two laws:

  • Negligence law: Visitors who contract COVID-19 as a direct consequence of your failure to use reasonable care to protect them can sue your office for money damages to compensate them for the losses they suffered as a result; and
  • Occupiers’ liability laws: Visitors who get infected at your property can also sue for money damages under statutes found in many states and municipalities that require the occupier of a property to keep visitors reasonably safe from harm when they enter it.

The liability waiver

The liability waiver, aka release or exculpatory agreement, is designed to limit legal risks by getting another person to waive, i.e., voluntarily give up, their legal right to sue for injuries or damages. While workers’ comp makes them unnecessary for workers, waivers may be valuable in limiting potential liability to visitors.

There are two ways to go about getting a COVID-19 waiver from visitors:

  • Having the visitor sign a written waiver agreement; and/or
  • Posting a sign notifying visitors that by entering the facility, they agree to waive their rights to sue for infections they may contract on the premises.

The big question: Would a court actually enforce these waivers?

Although there hasn’t yet been a COVID-19 waiver case, centuries of waiver litigation provides pretty reliable clues of how courts would decide such a claim when they inevitably do arise.

4 COVID-19 waiver pitfalls to avoid

The starting point is that courts won’t enforce waivers if they think the property owner is taking advantage. So, as office manager, you need to be aware of the red flags.

1. Lack of negotiation

A fundamental problem with waivers is the disparity in negotiating power between the property owner and the visitor granting the waiver. In fact, waivers are rarely actually negotiated. The owner creates the waiver and requires the visitor to sign it. And, in the case of a sign, the waiver doesn’t even require a signature to take effect. However, courts will still enforce sign waivers, provided that they’re conspicuously posted at the entry and the owner can prove the visitor actually saw them.

2. Lack of clarity

Another problem with waivers is that they tend to be laden with legal jargon and boilerplate content, often in very small print that visitors are highly unlikely to read, let alone understand. That’s why courts will only enforce a waiver if it’s clear and unambiguously written in a way that ensures the reader understands both the hazards to which they’re exposed by entering the facility and the rights they’re giving up. In the context of COVID-19, that requires spelling out the risks of infection and plainly stating that the waiver means that the visitor won’t be able to sue you if he or she thinks they contract the virus at your facility.

3. Lack of Consideration

Contractual promises and obligations aren’t enforceable unless the person who makes them receives consideration, i.e., something of value in return. The COVID-19 waiver, therefore, needs to provide for such consideration, namely, gaining entry to the office facility.

4. Unconscionability

“Unconscionability” is the legal term used by courts to describe an agreement that’s unenforceable because it’s so unfair and one-sided in favor of the person that drafted it. Similarly, a court may deem the waiver unenforceable as being contrary to public policy. Although each case is different, there are some fairly clear lines that would probably apply to a COVID-19 waiver. As a rule, the broader the waiver and scope of conduct it purports to excuse, the harder it will be to enforce:

  • Most enforceable: Waiver of the visitor’s right to sue for COVID-19 infection that wasn’t the office’s fault;
  • Possibly enforceable: Waiver of the visitor’s right to sue for COVID-19 infection even if it was the result of the office’s negligence;

Unenforceable: Waiver of the visitor’s right to sue for COVID-19 infection attributable to the office’s intentional, reckless or grossly negligent conduct.









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