When the Coronavirus outbreak initially began in China there were hopes that it would be contained and relatively short-lived. Fast forward a couple of months and there are literally hundreds of thousands of individuals infected and the coronavirus death toll is, unfortunately, continuing to rise, quite dramatically in some countries. There are reportedly 16 million people under quarantine in Italy alone and the situation in the UK is expected to get very much worse before it gets better. This prompts the question, can those infected with coronavirus and other potentially fatal infections claim personal injury compensation?
The Coronavirus outbreak
While the coronavirus outbreak is part of the SARS family it is a new strain of infection and it is unlikely there will be a vaccine any time soon. Scientists are literally trying to cram 20 years of work into creating a vaccine into 12 months. While any vaccine would be fast-tracked there is obviously a need to ensure it is safe which will require significant testing. So, if you are infected with coronavirus where do you stand with regards to compensation?
Before we take a look at the other viruses which tend to emerge on a regular basis let us take a look at how other medical conditions have been addressed in years gone by.
Changes as a result of deep vein thrombosis (DVT) cases
Those who take regular long haul flights will be well aware of DVT which is a potentially fatal condition involving the creation of blood clots. As long haul flights became more popular and more affordable there was a significant increase in the number of DVT cases. We know that the condition can be fatal in some cases but in more general terms it can lead to significant medical costs and impact an individual’s standard of living. So, what happened when DVT compensation claims came to court?
Cramped conditions blamed for DVT
The basis of many DVT compensation claims centred around the cramped conditions passengers were forced to “suffer” during long haul flights. While there were other issues to take into consideration there is a general understanding that a lack of movement does play a major part. However, the need to prove that the condition was created by an “accident” which was external to the passenger was the undoing of many DVT compensation claims.
Interestingly, while the vast majority of DVT compensation claims were unsuccessful it did prompt airlines to introduce specific guidance for passengers and even provide safety equipment such as DVT socks. Those who take long haul flights today will be aware that they are encouraged to stretch their legs whenever possible and walk around the cabin on a regular basis. This movement will significantly reduce the chances of experiencing DVT and the potential fatal consequences.
How does this relate to the coronavirus?
It is stating the obvious to highlight the often cramped conditions experienced when flying today. Airlines are under extreme pressure to maximise the number of passengers and use all available cabin space. So, this does put those potentially infected with the coronavirus in the direct vicinity of those free from infection. We know that this type of airborne infection is extremely contagious and simply touching an infected surface then touching your face could lead to a transfer of the condition. Coughs and sneezes from those infected will also release minute droplets into the atmosphere which can apparently stay suspended for up to 10 minutes.
So, while airlines as one example cannot be held responsible for the coronavirus outbreak, perhaps those infected when using their services could seek to prove infection as a consequence of negligence?
Potential grounds for negligence
In the early days of the coronavirus there was little information and in all honesty little concern from governments around the world. Today the coronavirus Covid-19 is a pandemic. This is a dreaded pandemic that could sweep across the world (as we are currently witnessing) claiming the lives of potentially hundreds of thousands if not millions of people. It is a little dramatic to suggest that the coronavirus in its current state has the potential to cause this level of mortality but it is concerning. So, if you are infected while using the services of an airline it might be interesting to consider the following as a basis for compensation:-
- Did the advice provided by the airline comply with local/international health regulations and updates?
- Were passengers made aware of the potential risk of infection while crowded into a relatively compact area?
- Did the airline check aircraft ventilation systems for signs of infection?
- Were passengers tested for high temperatures, a potential sign of the coronavirus, before boarding flights?
- Have airlines supplied the appropriate safety equipment such as masks that can be used to reduce the risk of contamination?
- Are individual aircraft fumigated on a regular basis to eliminate the coronavirus and other similar infections?
- Were appropriate procedures in place to segregate infected passengers in-flight, pre-flight and post-flight?
As we mentioned above, in the early days there was little in the way of detail with regards to the threat of the coronavirus and how it could be reduced/eliminated. Today is very different, governments and health organisations around the world are releasing official advice on a regular basis to individuals and businesses. Indeed the coronavirus has just recently been added to the list of UK infectious diseases that are covered by commercial insurance. So, is it fair to argue that simple procedure such as those mentioned above should be in place and expected by passengers?
The UK government is quite literally at the beck and call of the Chief Medical Officer who has been extremely active since the outbreak became serious. It is the legal obligation of individuals and businesses to take heed of official guidance. Failure to do so could potentially lead to claims of negligence and potential compensation if infections occur.
Potential infections in the workplace
The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 places a legal obligation on employers to provide a safe and clean environment for their employees. Over the years we have seen many instances of infectious diseases at work with some of the more common including:-
Each of the diseases above has a different infection and mortality rate and are often spread via different methods. Therefore the specific risks will vary in different environments and require different actions.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) operates and enforces legislation in the United Kingdom with regard to workplace safety. Where outbreaks of infections such as those listed above occur it is their job to locate the source and take preventative action. There are numerous legal obligations placed on employers with regards to workplace safety which include:-
- Ongoing staff training
- Providing a clean and safe environment
- Reporting infection outbreaks as soon as possible
- The provision of relevant safety equipment
- Carrying out appropriate and regular checks
- Recording injury/infections in the workplace
- Abiding by HSE regulations
The idea that a simple deep clean of the workplace each year will suffice with regards to employer legal obligations is outdated. As well as ongoing staff training the employer must provide the appropriate safety equipment, record-keeping and basically abide by all HSE regulations. Failure to do so, leading to infections and injuries would likely form a strong basis for negligence and a potential compensation claim.
If any infectious outbreak is reported and addressed immediately there is a significant chance of containing the situation and avoiding a full-blown epidemic/pandemic. The situation with the coronavirus is slightly different because this is a new strain of a virus related to the SARS family. We also know that some of those infected have shown no physical signs while still being able to infect others – further muddying the waters with regards to personal injury compensation claims. In the vast majority of cases, the impact of an infection can be mitigated if treatment is received relatively quickly.
The coronavirus is a prime example of modern-day dangers with literally millions of people in quarantine around the world. While extremely infectious, it has been estimated that 80% of those exposed to the coronavirus will only experience mild flu-like symptoms. A further 17% will experience a more severe form of the illness with no risk to life. Unfortunately, around 3% of those exposed to the coronavirus will die with a significant impact on those who already have serious underlying health conditions. Certainly, it’s still early days so these stats are likely to change the more it spreads.
Negligence is negligence
As health bodies around the world continue to investigate and research the coronavirus and ways to mitigate the extremely high rate of infections, when it comes to employers and corporate entities, negligence is still negligence. If airlines are instructed to take temperature measurements from passengers before they board flights then they must do so. Failure to carry out this relatively simple action could leave other passengers exposed to infected individuals in a relatively confined space. While we highlighted the example of DVT and a lack of successful personal injury claims, it will be interesting to see the eventual challenges brought about by those infected by the coronavirus.
Slowly but surely official guidance and changes to health and safety regulations are emerging as health bodies continue to investigate and research the coronavirus. While legally, third parties cannot be held responsible for the coronavirus itself, is it possible they could be found negligent if they fail to take the relevant precautions? The truth is any talk of coronavirus and compensation claims is of no significance right now, the real issue is dealing with this threat in the most effective way we can.