Can Teachers be Held Liable for COVID Outbreaks in the Classroom?
By Joshua C. Black, Esq.
For the second consecutive year, teachers and students are heading back to the classroom with a global pandemic hanging over their heads.
For educators, administrators and parents, keeping kids as safe as possible while they are on campus is a top priority. But when hundreds of students and teachers are together in the school’s halls and classrooms exposure to COVID grows exponentially. If exposure occurs, are teachers in jeopardy of being sued?
Recently, dozens of states, Arizona included, have introduced legislation to help businesses like health care providers, nursing homes, nonprofit organizations, churches and school districts, avoid frivolous lawsuits pertaining to COVID exposure.
These bills, often referred to as “liability shields,” hold organizations harmless from lawsuits as long as they are acting in good faith and following guidance from the state and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). For schools this pertains specifically to in-person instruction. These liability shields heighten the standard of proof a student or other third party would need to make a COVID-related claim against a school or educator.
Specifically, the liability shield supported by Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey is intended to reduce the potential legal liability educators and other front-line workers may face if they unintentionally expose others to COVID while doing their jobs.
Passed by the Arizona Senate in February, Arizona’s SB #1377 says during a state of emergency for a public health pandemic, a person or provider that acts in good faith to protect individuals from a public health pandemic is not liable for damages in any civil action. The protection will not be available if it is proven by clear and convincing evidence that the person or provider failed to act or acted with willful misconduct or gross negligence.
Traditionally, educators have a general duty of reasonableness in all of their actions. This means teachers and school staff members must take reasonable precautions to keep the public, in this case co-workers and students, safe from the results of their actions. If someone fails to adhere to a reasonable person’s standard, they could be liable for the legal claim of negligence.
The liability shield raises this standard as it relates to COVID in the classroom and other high-risk workplaces like hospitals and nursing homes. Under the new standard, an educator would have to be proven to have been grossly negligent or have actually engaged in willful misconduct to be liable for COVID-related claims.
To be grossly negligent would typically mean the individual showed not just a lack of reasonableness, but also an extreme indifference or recklessness for the safety of others. Willful misconduct involves an element of knowledge. If an individual engages in activity, they know could lead to spreading COVID, such as failing to disclose a COVID diagnosis and coming to work while contagious, such willful misconduct could result in liability.
This school year teachers can protect themselves by keeping up-to-date on the most recent guidelines and suggestions about COVID safety from agencies such as the CDC and state and local governments. Teachers should follow all district or school policies related to social distancing, sanitizing and quarantining. They also should ensure they aren’t taking any unnecessary risks outside of the job which could leave them vulnerable to contracting this highly-contagious virus. Lastly, transparency at work regarding exposure and symptoms is crucial to avoiding any unnecessary issues pertaining to the safety of teachers, their co-workers and their students.
If you have questions about COVID liability shields in your place of business, contact the Law Office of Joshua Black, PLC, at (623) 738-2225.