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Amazon is Not a Public Nuisance: Employer Liability in the Face of Community Spread

| Nov 4, 2020 | Employment & Labor Law

Without a doubt, COVID-19 has presented a challenge for employers trying to maintain business operations while protecting their workforce from an invisible and evolving enemy.  A recent decision from the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York has clarified an employer’s legal obligations in this pandemic.  In Palmer, et al. v. Amazon.com, Inc., et al., 20-cv-2468 (BMC), the plaintiffs, employees at Amazon’s JFK8 fulfillment center on Staten Island, alleged that Amazon failed to take adequate precautions to protect them and their families from exposure to the novel coronavirus.  They asserted, for example, that they were not provided adequate time to properly wash hands or sanitize workspaces due, in part, to Amazon’s purported productivity requirements, and that Amazon did not provide enough air-conditioned breakrooms to maintain social distancing.  According to the plaintiffs, Amazon’s practices created a public nuisance, putting them, their families, and ostensibly the entire community at risk of COVID-19.

The court, however, wholly disagreed, finding that the alleged fear of contracting COVID-19 was not specific to Amazon’s facility: “This injury is common to the New York City community at large . . . Unlike the noxious landfill, a malarial pond, or a pigsty, JFK8 is not the source of COVID-19, emitting the virus from a single source into an otherwise healthy world.  The public at large cannot avoid COVID-19 simply by avoiding JFK8, its immediate surrounding area, and its employees.  Instead, plaintiffs and the public risk exposing themselves to COVID-19 nearly anywhere in this country and the world.”

This judicial recognition of the breadth of COVID19’s spread within the larger community, and indeed globally, has implications for other civil and administrative claims against employers and businesses.  Tort claims, such as negligence, require proof that the defendant’s actions caused the injury.  This is also true within the worker’s compensation context, which typically requires a claimant to show that a disease arose out of and in the course of employment.  By recognizing a nearly omnipresent risk of exposure to the novel coronavirus, the court hinted at the difficulty a plaintiff may have connecting a COVID-19 diagnosis to any single entity or activity.

Further, the court declined to even consider the plaintiffs’ workplace safety criticisms, finding that such matters fall squarely within OSHA’s purview.  Recognizing that “someone has to strike a balance between maintaining some level of operations in conjunction with some level of protective measures,” the court concluded that, “courts are not expert in public health or workplace safety matters, and lack the training, expertise, and resources to oversee compliance with evolving industry guidance.”  In redirecting workers to OSHA, the court consolidated issues of workplace safety in the COVID-19 era within a single, federal entity, thereby implicitly rejecting a patchwork of inconsistent state and federal court rulings.

While Palmer is but another case in the evolving jurisprudence on COVID-19 issues, it signals a judicial recognition that businesses and employers need clear and consistent guidance in this global pandemic, “for which there is no immediate end in sight.”

Kristin A. Zech is an employment lawyer with Berenzweig Leonard.  She can be reached at 703-940-3788 or [email protected].