The COVID-19 pandemic has upended life as we’ve come to know it. Our personal lives have been altered because of stay at home orders and the need to maintain distance from people outside our immediate households. 

In addition to our personal lives, businesses of many types are facing incomparable challenges. These have included everything from businesses being shuttered as a means of controlling the spread of coronavirus to enterprises of all types trying to come to an understanding of the legal consequences and requirements of operating in the COVID-19 era. Among the important, indeed crucial, legal issues that business owners need to understand is the doctrine of premises liability.

Legal Definition of the Doctrine of Premises Liability

The most basic, essential definition of premises liability is that it is the legal responsibility of a landowner or tenant for injuries caused to a visitor to the property arising out of something dangerous at the location. The most common type of premises liability claim for injuries involves a person who slips and falls at a property, particularly at a business. 

There is a commonly issued type of accident at a business that is oftentimes used to illustrate the legal responsibility of a business owner for injuries caused to a patron. The example involves a grocery store where a liquid has spilled in one of the aisles. (The often-used exclamation of “cleanup on aisle four” comes to mind.)

According to the legal principle of premises liability, a store has to clean up the spill in a reasonable period of time. If a store fails to do so, and a customer slips, falls, and is injured, the store has a legal liability or responsibility for the damages caused to that customer.

As an aside in such a situation, a store would be responsible for a worker who is injured in this manner. With that said, different legal principles apply. These legal principles primarily are those associated with worker’s compensation laws. 

What constitutes addressing a hazard in a building or on other property in a “reasonable time” necessitates that application of what admittedly is something of an objective test. Whether or not a business has taken reasonable action to protect a customer, vendor, or other visitor from harm at its premises is determined by looking at what a similarly situated enterprise would do under the same or similar set of circumstances. 

As we seem to be moving closer to the time when U.S. businesses will begin to reopen following the mandate for them to suspend operations because of COVID-19, the issue of premises liability is going to come into sharp focus. Specifically, business owners and managers will need to look closely at what reasonable strategies need to be employed to protect customers and clients from COVID-19 when they reopen for operations. 

What Are Reasonable Tactics a Business Needs to Employ in the COVID-19 Era?

There are two primary areas in which a business has a legal duty to keep its premises safe for patrons in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. First, a business needs to properly respond when it learns that its building, premises, or property has been contaminated by COVID-19. Second, a business needs to develop an explicit, meaningful strategy to protect against coronavirus contamination of its building, premises, or property.

With the state of testing technology and availability as it relates to COVID-19 and property contamination, there is no widely available test that a business owner or manager is able to access or employ at this time to confirm with absolute certainty that a location has been contaminated by coronavirus. With that in mind, there can be abundant evidence that a business building or property is contaminated by COVID-19 beyond what might be ascertained through specific testing.

The most basic indicator that a business’ premises might be contaminated with coronavirus is if an infected worker or patron has been in the property. A business owner must understand that COVID-19 is highly contagious. It not only is transferrable via person to person contact, but an infected individual can “shed” the virus on surfaces and objects in or at a business. If not promptly and properly eradicated, the virus on these surfaces and objects can infect someone else, including a worker, patron, vendor, or someone else at the business. 

At this juncture in time, a reasonable business owner – appreciating the risk and danger associated with COVID-19 – might employ the services of a COVID-19 cleaning company to eradicate an apparent coronavirus contamination at the premises. A professional coronavirus cleaning and disinfection company have the tools, equipment, EPA-approved disinfection agents, personal protective equipment (PPE) required to thoroughly, safely restore a building or other location to a safe usable condition. 

Developing a COVID-19 Contamination Prevention Plan

As mentioned a moment ago, the legal liability or responsibility of a business also extends to the development of a COVID-19 contamination prevention plan. Such a plan involves a number of facets, including providing employees with comprehensive training regarding protecting themselves and others against the spread of COVID-19. 

A COVID-19 contamination prevention plan also should include a scheme of ensuring that a business is subjected to regular, comprehensive COVID-19 cleaning and disinfection. While a business definitely needs a policy through which cleaning and sanitization occurs throughout the business day, more comprehensive work also needs to be done in this regard. By way of example, many businesses will work and coordinate with a reputable COVID-19 cleaning company for regular coronavirus cleaning and sanitization. This is likely to be considered a reasonable step for a business to take until such time that there is a reliable and widely used vaccine for COVID-19.