Businesses confront legal issues upon reopening amid COVID-19 concerns

“They should be worried,” an Atlanta lawyer says
Businesses including salons are preparing to reopen. Stock image: Pixabay

Businesses including salons are preparing to reopen. Stock image: Pixabay

The first wave of businesses set to open for business Friday under Gov. Brian Kemp’s easing of coronavirus restrictions are being told to follow U.S. occupational health and safety guidelines to keep their employees and customers safe.

Businesses that fail to do so and have customers or employees contract COVID-19 and die could find themselves on the receiving end of wrongful death and negligence lawsuits filed by surviving family members.

Atlanta labor lawyer Amanda Farahany said if businesses know or should know they have sanitary problems, they have a responsibility to act. If they don’t, and someone gets sick, they can be found liable.

» COMPLETE COVERAGE: Coronavirus in Georgia

“I think they should be worried,” Farahany said. “This could be a problem for these small businesses that are opening up. We are talking about life and death here.”

As some approved businesses started opening on Friday, one Midtown salon informed clients they'd have to sign waivers before their appointments.

The owner of an upscale Buckhead bowling establishment opted to remain closed:

Lawsuits are already starting to get filed across the country.

Earlier this month, Walmart was sued by the brother of 51-year-old grocery worker Wando Evans, who died of the coronavirus on March 25. The suit alleges that managers at the Evergreen Park, Ill., store failed to alert employees that some of Evans' coworkers had COVID-19 symptoms.

Four days after Evans’ death, Phillip Thomas, 48, became the second employee at that Walmart store to succumb to the coronavirus.

“Lawyers are talking to each other about a possible flood of lawsuits coming from COVID-19,” Atlanta lawyer Linda Klein said. “There have already been cases filed and, in talking to each other, lawyers are assuming that this is only the beginning.”

» WHAT TO KNOW: Gov. Kemp's decision to ease coronavirus restrictions

» RELATED: These metro area restaurants are reopening as coronavirus restrictions are lifted

One looming question is whether businesses that do reopen have enough personal protection equipment, such as masks and gloves, to keep their employees can stay safe and comply with federal and state guidelines.

At the same time, the Trump Administration is pushing back at the prospect of a slew of lawsuits being filed.

On Wednesday, White House Economic Advisor Larry Kudlow suggested businesses should be shielded from liability if employees or customers catch the virus as states allow more businesses to open their doors.

“Businesses, particularly small businesses that don’t have massive resources, should not be held liable — should not be held to trial lawyers putting on false lawsuits that will probably be thrown out of court,” Kudlow told CNBC. “You have to give the businesses some confidence here that if something happens, and it may not be their fault — I mean, the disease is an infectious disease.”

Kudlow’s comments came after President Donald Trump was asked during his Monday press briefing if employees get sick after their companies reopen.

“(W)e have tried to take liability away from these companies,” the president said. “We just don’t want that because we want the companies to open and to open strong.”

Trump added, “I’ll get you a legal opinion on that.”

» RELATED: Some of the guidelines Georgia businesses must follow to reopen

» WHAT TO KNOW: Georgia's shelter-in-place order

On Tuesday, Kemp released guidelines for cosmetologists and barbers to follow if they reopen their businesses on Friday. Some of the safety precautions were mandatory, while others were recommendations.

For example, shop owners must ask clients if they have had a cough or a fever and if they are living with someone who is sick or quarantined. Spacing between people in a salon or barbershop must be at least six feet at all times, the guidelines say. Shop employees will be required to wear masks at all times and wash their hands with soap and warm water for a minimum of 20 seconds after serving a client.

Other guidelines say shop owners “should consider” using a touchless, infrared thermometer on employees each day and on customers who enter the store. Shops should also consider seeing clients by appointment only, and it is recommended that customers wait outside in their cars until a cosmetologist or barber is ready to serve them. And owners should consider providing masks to their clients.

“Lawyers are talking to each other about a possible flood of lawsuits coming from COVID-19,” Atlanta lawyer and former president of the American Bar Association Linda Klein said. EMILY JENKINS/ EJENKINS@AJC.COM

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Klein, former president of the American Bar Association, said businesses that do reopen should adhere to the guidelines. If they don’t, she said, lawsuits could be filed by customers who believe businesses have not done enough to properly sanitize their properties.

“I think the most important advice for business owners who want to reopen is to be very cautious,” Klein said. “They need to stay informed of all local and state and federal regulations and advice. ... They should listen carefully to complaints and suggestions from customers and employees, accepting reasonable measures to improve health and safety.”

Atlanta employment lawyer Brett Bartlett recommended for companies that reopen to have conspicuous signage installed on their property with clear protocols for employees and customers to follow, such as handwashing, mask-wearing and social distancing.
"That will promote confidence among employees and customers when they return to this new normal," Bartlett said. "Businesses also need to give returning employees, many who've been home for weeks, a refresher course on the things that are important to us. That includes keeping everyone safe from infection."

Kay Kendrick, who chairs the State Board of Cosmetology and Barbers, said she was happy Kemp decided to reopen salons and spas.

"Under our sanitation laws and rules, we are charged with the responsibility of protecting consumers from the spread of contagious diseases every day in our salons,” said Kendrick who runs Kay’s Cut & Style in Thomson. “By adding the safety guidelines that have been developed by the board and some of our industry leaders in the cosmetology and barber profession, we feel that our professionals will be able to do an even better job of protecting themselves and their clients.”

She added, “I trust that all our professionals will use these guidelines to be safe and protect their clients.”