Airline Industries Face Liability Claims for Spreading Coronavirus

In March, a passenger on an airline flight that landed at Palm Beach International Airport in Florida revealed that he had tested positive for the COVID-19 virus. Authorities confirmed this news after landing, however, the 114 passengers onboard the flight were not screened for the virus and “were told to self-monitor and report any health-related issues” to the local health department or their medical provider, according to the Palm Beach Post.

JetBlue banned the infected passenger from any future flights. However, given the well-known transmission of previous coronaviruses onboard airlines, should JetBlue have known about the status of its infected passenger before he boarded the flight?

In 2003, a sick airline passenger infected as many as 22 passengers and crew with a coronavirus known as SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) on a flight to Hong Kong. Six years later, “[i]n 2009, at the beginning of the influenza A (H1N1) pandemic in 2009, air travel was the cause of the introduction of this new virus into countries not primarily affected,” according to the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control.

The Center predicted in 2014 that “airplanes are likely to be a major vector when the next pandemic occurs.” Nonetheless, as late as April 3, 2020, as deaths in America from an illness that originated in Wuhan, China threatened to top 10,000, American flight attendants reported their grave concern to Time “that after weeks of working without proper supplies, they have been exposed to thousands of cases and in turn become primary transmitters to the hundreds of thousands of Americans who continue to fly every day.”

Claims Against Airlines may be Complicated by “Direct Threat” Statute

Although is evident that airlines knew that COVID-19 was an especially infectious and dangerous disease, and continued to fly potentially infected persons around the world, in the United States, a federal law provides that airlines can only refuse or delay a passenger’s transportation if “the passenger’s condition poses a direct threat.”

According to Mark McKinnon, writing at JD Supra, airlines are permitted to rely on federal rules that define “a direct threat,” and the most recent rules describe SARS as “probably” a direct threat. Whether the apparently less lethal but more contagious COVID-19 represents a direct threat such that airlines could refuse or delay service to an infected passenger is a likely litigation battleground in an any claims brought against airlines.

Coronavirus Injury Claims Against Airlines Face Familiar Hurdles

Persons infected with coronavirus as a result of the negligence of an airline may be entitled to damages for out-of-pocket medical costs, pain and suffering, and any permanent damage or loss of function caused by the infection. However, to win this compensation—called damages—an injured person must demonstrate that the airline was negligent, or:

  • The airline owed the injured person a duty of care;
  • The airline breached the duty of care that it owed to the injured person;
  • The breach of the duty of care by the airline was the proximate cause of the injury suffered by the injured person;
  • The injured person suffered damage or injury resulting from the breach of the duty by the airline.

Airlines may argue that they did not owe persons infected by coronavirus any duty of care associated with transmission of a then-unknown or poorly understood disease, or that their actions after learning of the existence of the virus were reasonable. Airlines may further argue that their alleged negligent actions or omissions did not cause persons to become infected with COVID-19, that the actions or omissions of third parties caused infection, or that the infection of persons on airlines or in airline-related facilities was the result of forces well outside the control of airlines.

Coronavirus Negligence Claims Subject to Statutes of Limitation

If an airline has failed to take reasonable steps to protect persons from exposure to the COVID-19 virus, an infected person may pursue a claim for compensation. The professionals at Arnold & Smith, PLLC can assist persons infected by the COVID-19 virus who believe their infection resulted from the negligent conduct or omissions of a third party.

Like other negligence claims in North Carolina, any action based on the transmission of the COVID-19 virus must be brought within three (3) years of the date of infection.

Contact Arnold & Smith, PLLC Today to Schedule a Free Consultation

The best thing a person injured by the negligence of a third party can do is contact an experienced, local personal injury attorney. The professionals at Arnold & Smith, PLLC can assist injured persons in preparing and filing claims against at-fault persons or companies.

Arnold & Smith, PLLC handles personal injury cases across the entire State of North Carolina. Contact Arnold & Smith, PLLC today to set up a free initial consultation.

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