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Legal Liability and Requiring COVID Masks

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States are in various stages of reopening following months of COVID-19 lock downs. As the states progress through the phases, businesses are making key decisions regarding masks, should masks be required or optional? Some legislatures have taken the responsibility for this decision away from business owners and are requiring masks be worn; but other states leave the decision to the business owners.

In states where the decision rests with the business, some operations have made the corporate decision to require masks be worn by all who enter the premises. From a legal liability perspective, is this necessary?

Legal Liability

Legal liability is liability imposed by the court or regulators on the person or entity legally responsible for injury or damage suffered by another party. Such legal obligations (or liability) can arise from intentional acts, unintentional acts, contracts (express or implied) or regulations. Legal liability generally focuses on civil wrongs but can include criminal wrongs. “Legal liability” exists when:

  • The wrongdoer is found guilty of “Negligent Conduct” (breached the duty owed);
  • The injured party suffers actual damages; and
  • The wrongdoer’s “negligent conduct” is the proximate cause of the injury or damage.

(For a more detailed discussion of legal liability, see, “How Does a ‘Person’ Become Legally Liable.”)

A key requirement towards proving “negligent conduct” and ultimately legal liability is proving that the supposed tortfeasor (the wrongdoer) has or owed the injured party a specific duty of care and breached or failed to satisfy that duty. The degree of care owed to an injured party is based on the relationship between the wrongdoer and the injured party.

The greater the degree of care required or expected, the lower the threshold for breaching a duty owed (it is easier to breach a duty when greater care is required). Courts generally recognize four degrees of care or “levels” based on relationships are:

  • Slight Negligence: A high degree of care is required;
  • Ordinary Negligence: Requires “reasonable” care such as would be provided by a reasonable and prudent person;
  • Gross Negligence: Very little care beyond slight care (not to be confused with slight negligence) is required. This is represented by a deliberate or reckless disregard of a duty to exercise care which is likely to cause foreseeable and significant harm; and
  • Negligence per se: A breach of duty because the law says it is. Negligence per se requires: 1) the at-fault party to violate the law, 2) the law to pertain to public safety, 3) the violation of the law be the cause of the injury, and 4) the injured person be a part of the class of persons the law was designed to protect.

In a business/customer relationship, the business generally owes the customer a duty of reasonable care. While there are certain business relationships that increase the duty owed (such as that owed by an operation transporting passengers in a vehicle), reasonable care is the most common duty owed. For sake of this review, assume the business owes a duty of reasonable care.

Examples of duties owed by business establishments under the concept of reasonable care include repairing/correcting known hazards; warning against intrinsic/unrepairable hazards; and taking steps to avoid preventable hazards.

Consider the example of a restaurant that has several sets of steps in the path to the dining area, where a member of the wait staff has spilled some water and where the plate comes out of the oven very hot. Reasonable care in such a restaurant might include actions such as the person showing the customer to a table warns of the steps (“watch your step”), the wait person puts up a little yellow sign warning of the wet floor, and the person delivering the food says, “Be careful, the plate is hot.” These are examples of reasonable care.

Let’s return to the question of masks and legal liability associated with requiring or not requiring them. For this discussion, the injured party moves from a restaurant (it’s hard to eat while wearing a mask) to a retail location.

From the perspective of reasonable care, are masks necessary to avoid legal liability?

(Note, this discussion does not and will not address the availability or applicability of liability insurance coverage. Only the concept of legal liability regarding customers in a typical retail setting is addressed in this article.)

Effectiveness of Masks

Before exploring the relative differences in legal liability between requiring masks and allowing customers the option, the purpose and effectiveness of masks must be considered. Discussions focused on the effectiveness of masks may be more complicated than the concept of legal liability because of the emotions and the lack of clear information surrounding the wearing of masks.

Purpose: The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) both state there are essentially two “grades” or levels of masks: 1) those that filter out the virus designed to protect the wearer from contracting the virus and prevent the wearer from spreading the virus; and 2) those intended to prevent the wearer from spreading the virus, but that do not necessarily prevent the wearer from contracting the virus. The masks most often worn by the public are the second type – masks intended only to prevent the spread and not the contracting of the virus.

Effectiveness: Unfortunately, the question of effectiveness seems to be unanswerable. Some claim the masks are very effective (giving percentages of protection without credible source substantiation) and some say they are little more than a “feel good” measure using drywall dust and even smoke to prove the point. Even the CDC and WHO are inconsistent in their messages. In regard to legal liability, effectiveness is largely irrelevant.

Masks Optional

Business operations choosing to allow the customers to make the mask-wearing decision may subject themselves to accusations by a customer that he or she contracted the virus from an unmasked person or persons in the store. The injured person may assert that close contact with an unmasked person or persons led to their sickness.

Such charges may be impossible to prove. A virus is a humankind exposure and is not limited to a location where people are not wearing masks. If the claimant visited the grocery store, bank, pharmacy, office and/or other places during any particular day, proving the only place where they were exposed to the virus was the grocery store would be of utmost difficulty. Add to this the reality that other members of the family may have been several places, contracted the virus, and brought it home to everyone else in the house. Lastly, the masks worn in public are not designed to keep the virus from getting in, they are designed to limit the expulsion of the virus from the nose and mouth.

Frankly, lacking a law to the contrary, the business owner does not owe the customer a duty beyond reasonable care. Reasonable care is limited to the premises and what the business can actually control; viruses exist in more places than just the business premises and a business cannot be expected to protect a customer from exposure in all aspects of a customer’s life. Narrowing the person’s exposure down to one business on one particular day is truly picking gnats out of pepper.

Additionally, the legal concept of assumption of risk may be an affirmative defense to the mask-optional discussion. Assumption of risk is a legal doctrine under which an individual is barred from recovering damages for an injury sustained when he or she voluntarily exposed him or herself to a known danger. Put another way, assumption of risk prohibits the injured party from seeking damages on the basis that the plaintiff (injured person) knew of a hazardous or potentially hazardous condition and willingly exposed him or herself to it.

Assumption of risk defenses require the defendant to show:

  • The injured party had actual knowledge of the risk involved (conspicuously post signs warning “Enter at your own risk, masks are optional”); and
  • The plaintiff voluntarily accepted the risk (they entered the store).

When a customer visits a business where masks are optional, they make a conscious decision to enter the premises or not. If the injured party assumed the risk by entering the premises, the law generally recognizes the defendant no longer owes a duty to protect the plaintiff against that risk.

Given the relatively unclear requirements of reasonable care, the difficulty in proving the virus was contracted at a particular place on a particular day, the doctrine of assumption of risk, and the limited purposes of the masks, business owners are unlikely to be held legally liable solely because masks were not required of all customers.

Requiring masks may exceed the requirement of reasonable care. In fact, certain disabilities and ADA laws may make it impossible for all customers to wear a mask. If courts made mask wearing the minimum standard of reasonable care, removing the freedom of personal choice generally granted to the business owner and the customer/citizen, in a sense, the court would “legislate” masks by making mask wearing the minimum standard of care while ignoring the protection of assumption of risk. Some states have already undertaken legislative efforts to protect business owners.

Masks Required

Previous paragraphs addressed the types and relative effectiveness of masks. Does requiring all customers to wear a mask decrease the business owner’s potential for being held legally liable?

Health officials recommend (where not a requirement) masks be worn that prevent the spread of droplets and mists from the nose and mouth that may contain the virus. Again, these masks aren’t necessarily designed to prevent the wearer from contracting the virus, but when every customer wears masks, the theory is everyone has a reduced (though not completely eliminated) chance of contracting the virus.

On the surface, requiring everyone to wear a mask appears to lower the chances that the business will be accused of contributing to or causing a person to contract the virus. Requiring a mask seems to be a physical manifestation of an exculpatory statement such as, “Not Responsible for Broken Windshields” or “Enter at Your Own Risk, Not Responsible for Injury.” The statement doesn’t make it so.

Individuals may be less likely to sue but requiring masks may not lower or heighten an operation’s legal liability for injury to a customer – if it can be proven the virus was contracted at the location. What other steps were taken to protect the customer?

Legal liability is a function of duty and facts. Requiring masks of all customers may be above and beyond the duty of reasonable care owed to customers.

To Mask or Not Mask

Requiring masks or allowing customers to make a personal choice apparently has no effect on the business owners’ ultimate legal liability. What is the duty owed (reasonable care)? Did the owner meet the duty owed? If both questions are answered “yes,” the business is not legally liable for any injury suffered.

Can the infected person prove the virus was contracted at the business? Given the facts of a virus and particularly this virus (with its long incubation period), proving it was contracted in any one place on any given day is nearly impossible.

Holding a business legally liable without other clear and convincing evidence simply because customers were not required to wear masks forces the court to set a standard of care almost impossible to maintain in the future. Every flu season or the event of another community sickness will subject business owners to a higher degree of care than ever required in history or should be considered reasonable.

A virus is a natural organism that man can avoid only so long. Holding a business owner legally liable is unreasonable given the facts of care and the reality of a virus.

Requiring masks may dissuade some from naming the business in the suit; but not requiring masks likely does not increase the overall chances of being held legally liable.

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