Could Businesses and Homeowners Be Responsible for a COVID-19 Spread?

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The news of a lawsuit filed by a South Florida family against Publix, months after a Miami Beach employee died of COVID-19, has legal experts warning not just businesses, but families hosting guests during the holidays, too.

Ariane Gutierrez, the daughter of 70-year-old Gerardo Gutierrez, said this Thanksgiving won’t be the same without her dad.

"It’s my first Thanksgiving without him. He would spend all his holidays with me," Gutierrez said.

In a lawsuit filed by Gerardo Gutierrez's family, they say he died from COVID-19 in April. They believe he would still be with them if Publix allowed him to wear a mask at the deli section where he worked in March. The lawsuit also alleges that the supermarket exposed him to a co-worker who was sick and later tested positive for the virus.

The lawsuit alleges that Publix Super Markets Inc. "minimized, downplayed, misrepresented, and otherwise concealed" the risk of COVID-19 to its employees and prohibited PPE so as to not scare shoppers. The suit alleges the company "was more concerned with protecting its sales and profits."

NBC 6 has contacted Publix over the last two days for comment on the lawsuit, but they have not responded.

Coral Gables attorney Chris Brown says the lawsuit reveals that there is very little guidance on how to handle this at the state and federal level.

Cases like these so far are rare. Brown says those filed would generally be covered by workers compensation, but no one has immunity from this type of COVID-19 lawsuit.

“Where does this end? Who might end up facing potential liability for COVID,” Brown asked.

Miami Dade Nurse Venice Jean Baptist says she was in the hospital for days after getting COVID-19. She sued the medical clinic where she worked and the doctor running it, alleging he didn’t take precautions seriously.

In October, Baptist said the doctor told her "'You’re overreacting,' and he walked by me in the hallway and he breathed on me. He said, 'If I have the virus, now you have it too.'"

The doctor and medical clinic are denying Baptist’s allegations.

Big companies, of course, have legal teams and insurance. However, Brown says small mom and pop businesses probably won’t be sued because they don’t have the money those making the claims would be looking for.

"If you’re a medium-sized business, and you have insurance that might cover you, it could be a tremendous strain to have to defend a lawsuit like this," Brown said.

Believe it or not, Brown also says that if you’re hosting a Thanksgiving dinner, you too are potentially opening the door someone getting sick from COVID-19 later.

"It is possible that somebody could sue you if they come to your house and get infected at Thanksgiving dinner, especially if they can prove you knew someone in your house was infected or hiding it," Brown said.

His advice?

"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure here," he said.

That means, if you're a business, you should have already had safety protocols in place for months. And, if you’re hosting the turkey dinner and you’ve got a whiff that someone’s positive, cancel or keep them away from guests.

It’s the same as owning a dog that bites. You have to make sure they don't get out, because if it bites a visitor, you’re responsible.

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