Many U.S. Businesses Ask Customers, Workers to Sign Forms Promising They Won't Sue if They Catch Coronavirus
(WASHINGTON) — As businesses reopen across the U.S. after coronavirus shutdowns, many are requiring customers and workers to sign forms saying they won’t sue if they catch COVID-19.
Businesses fear they could be the target of litigation even if they adhere to safety precautions from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state health officials. But workers’ rights groups say the forms force employees to sign away their rights should they get sick.
The liability waivers, similar to what President Donald Trump’s campaign is requiring for people to attend a Saturday rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, would protect businesses in states that don’t have liability limits or immunity from coronavirus-related lawsuits.
So far, at least five states — Utah, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Alabama — have such limits through legislation or executive orders, and others are considering them. Business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are lobbying for national liability protections.
The novel coronavirus has sickened more than 2 million people in the U.S. and killed more than 115,000, according to Johns Hopkins University.
At Salon Medusa in West Hartford, Connecticut, hair stylist Lena Whelan says they’re using only two of six styling stations since reopening June 1. Customers have to wait outside, they have to wear masks, and all stations and tools are disinfected between clients.
Despite all those safety measures, customers must sign a form saying they won’t sue if they get infected with the novel coronavirus. The form, which also asks patrons if they or any family members have virus symptoms, gives the salon extra legal protection, Whelan said.
Critics argue that liability waivers open the door for corporations to skirt protocols like erecting Plexiglas barriers, providing face masks and other protective equipment, and keeping people the proper distance apart without suffering any repercussions.
The waivers are particularly onerous for workers who may feel compelled to sign them in order to keep their jobs, unlike customers who at least have a choice to walk away.
“It’s a terrible choice for an employee,” said Hugh Baran, an attorney with the National Employment Law Project, a worker advocacy group. “Do you sign this and potentially give up your legal recourse or do you refuse and feel like you are going to lose your job?”
Worse yet, in many states, if workers refuse to sign the waivers and return to work, they risk losing unemployment benefits, Baran said. Also, immunity legislation and liability waivers disproportionately affect black and Latino workers, many of whom have jobs that can’t be done remotely, he said.
Lawyers say many business clients are asking about the waivers. Whether they can be enforced varies by state and is open to debate. Owners are wise to take a “better safe than sorry” approach, said John Wolohan, a sports law professor at Syracuse University.
“It’s hard for me to believe people don’t understand the danger of going out in public and interacting. But when somebody gets sick, I’m sure they’re going to claim the business didn’t protect them the way they should have. By having a waiver, the business will better withstand the lawsuit,” Wolohan said.
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