If You Host a Small Gathering and a Guest Contracts COVID-19, Are You Liable?
In the age of COVID-19, most people are practicing safe social distancing, even avoiding groups and gatherings altogether. This ‘new normal’ has fundamentally changed the way we socialize and interact. But life continues to go on — birthdays pass, couples get married, kids join soccer teams. Regular events in our lives where we used to gather have left many uneasy, worried they may put themselves and others at risk of getting sick, and rightly so.
What's more, people aren’t just worried about attending events, but hosting them. If you host an event and someone contracts COVID-19, are you liable? With events like the one in Maine where one wedding became a super-spreader event — linked to 170 COVID-19 cases and seven deaths — these kinds of liability concerns are realistic.
Given that this is such new territory, we were able to find no clear-cut answer when it comes to COVID-19 hosting liability. As we would in all complex liability scenarios, we recommend that you speak directly to your insurance advisor to learn more about your homeowner’s insurance policy. And if you do decide to host a party, we’ve provided an easy checklist from the World Health Organization to help you plan a safer event. Read on for the important insights you'll need.
The definitions are fuzzy, but liability is unlikely
While we know insurance, we’re not lawyers. So recently, when we saw that Butler Snow LLP tackled this same question in the Memphis Business Journal, we were excited for some expert insight. They say that while most homeowners policies protect the insured from an “occurrence” (typically defined as bodily injury or property damage) caused by an “accident,” each individual policy’s language and terms will determine the particular coverage provided.
“Likewise, jurisdictions across the country have interpreted these provisions in divergent ways, especially in regard to what qualifies as an “accident,”’ the firm explained. “Importantly, many homeowners policies contain communicable disease exclusions — which would likely bar the majority of coronavirus-related claims — but some do not. In the absence of a communicable disease exclusion, several courts have determined that homeowners policies cover the negligent transmission of and exposure to similarly communicable diseases.”
Butler Snow LLP goes on to say that largely, while homeowners policies with communicable disease exclusions will probably prevent any coronavirus-related claims, the specific facts of a particular claim can prompt coverage analysis. But what homeowners need to keep in mind is that at the end of the day, people may not seek lawsuits in the wake of catching COVID-19.
“Although staggering numbers of people have and continue to become infected with COVID-19, the high costs of litigation will probably deter many would-be claimants from commencing litigation,” Butler Snow LLP went on to say. “Nonetheless, claims are more likely to be filed where someone died from the virus, especially where such people had eggshell-like compromised immunity issues.”
Speak to your advisor about the specifics
Because there are a variety of factors that will affect your liability — from policy language to local law — it’s important to speak to your insurance advisor about your coverage. Ask them how your policy is structured so that you can get clarity. You can also speak to your lawyer about local laws or precedents that may affect your policy coverage. However, as Kelly Klee President Bob Klee explains, the likelihood of being sued over this is likely pretty low.
“Yes you could get sued, but it's difficult to prove where a person contracted the virus,” Klee told us. “If you get sued, check the language in your homeowners policy, because your insurer might pay to defend you.”
Essentially, while your homeowner insurance or umbrella policy may not cover the transmission of a communicable disease that causes any bodily injury or property damage, your insurer may still pay to defend you in the case that has been brought against you. But as Klee explains, it is a bit more complicated than that.
“If you lose the case, it would not be covered under either of your policies. But, there’s a low likelihood of a lawsuit, as well as proof of contracting the virus at your house. So in summary, your insurer might pay to defend you, but not pay out the penalty if there is one."
Always use safer social practices
If you do decide to hold a social gathering, the World Health Organization says you should have a risk-based approach. They have a checklist to help people who are planning small events like birthday parties, children’s football games or family occasions do so in a way that is safe.
- Always check local guidelines before planning your event.
- Ask guests to stay home if they have been diagnosed with COVID-19, have symptoms of COVID-19, if they are waiting for COVID-19 test results, or may have been exposed to someone with COVID-19.
- Keep a list of all the guests who come to your event, this will allow for easier contact tracing in the case of a spread.
- Brief guests about precautions before the event starts; during the event, remind guests of these precautions and ensure they are followed.
- Choose outdoor venues over indoor spaces – if indoors, ensure the area is well-ventilated.
- Minimize crowding by staggering arrivals and departures, numbering entries, designating seats/places and marking the floor to ensure physical distancing between people of at least one meter.
- Maintain at least 1 metre distance from others, and wear a mask if you cannot guarantee this distance.
- Provide all necessary sanitary supplies like hand hygiene stations, hand sanitizer or soap and water, tissues, closed-lid bins, distance markers and masks.
- Cover a sneeze or cough with a tissue or bent elbow, and immediately dispose of tissue in a closed-lid bin. Avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth.
- Wash your hands frequently with soap and water, or with a hand sanitizer.