Coronavirus legal action threatens to set precedent

By Gwen Ridler contact

- Last updated on GMT

Any legal case against a food manufacturer surrounding the coronavirus could set a precedent for the future
Any legal case against a food manufacturer surrounding the coronavirus could set a precedent for the future

Related tags: coronavirus, health & safety

Legal action against food manufacturers blamed for letting their employees get sick from the coronavirus would be difficult to prove, but could lead to serious legal ramifications if upheld in court for the entire industry, law firm Walker Morris has warned.

The law company’s comments followed reports that the family of Miguel Plangca, who died from COVID-19, intended to pursue legal action against frozen food brand Birds Eye’s owner Nomad Foods, as they claimed he contracted the virus at the firm’s factory in Co Kildare, Ireland.

Claire Burrows, director at Walker Morris, told Food Manufacture ​it would be very difficult for a claimant to prove that they – or in the case above, their client – contracted COVID-19 at work as a result of employer negligence

“Any business faced with a civil claim of this nature should take specialist legal advice to allow a fair and accurate assessment of potential liability to be undertaken, before a decision is made about how to deal with the claim,”​ Burrows advised.

“In England and Wales, most personal injury claims are covered by a business' Employer's Liability insurance policy and it is common for insurers to settle such claims promptly to save costs and compensate the injured party.

“However, careful analysis of the merits of coronavirus-related claims should be undertaken before reaching a settlement agreement to avoid an expensive precedent being set. As is good practice in all personal injury claims, every case should be considered on its own merits.”

No legal action as yet

Commenting on Mr Plangca’s case, Nomad Foods said it was not aware of any legal action being taken against the company.

A spokesman for the manufacturer said: “As soon as we knew that Miguel had gone into hospital, four days after he had last been at work, we immediately identified and contacted everyone who may have had contact with Miguel in the days before he was ill.

“He was, first and foremost, a family man and we are doing everything we can to support his children and family. As a mark of respect, we didn’t run his shift on the day of his funeral, so that friends and colleagues had time to mourn and remember him.”

However, Nomad disputed that Plangca had contracted the novel coronavirus at its factory and instead pointed to a number of cases in the local community as the likely source of his infection.

“Of those infected, most have already recovered and are back to work, which is great news,”​ the spokesman added. “The ​[Health and Safety Executive] has repeatedly complimented us on our social distancing measures and our proactive approach to ensuring that our colleagues are safe and well.”

Implications of a successful claim

While no claim has been made against the company as yet, should one go through and be successful – or indeed a number of similar cases come to light that see manufacturers prosecuted – it could lead to a precedent by which all similar cases are handled.

“If a number of successful personal injury claims are made, in which it appears the business accepts not having appropriate measures in place to control the risks arising from the coronavirus, this is likely to pique the interest of regulators,”​ Burrows added.

“Should the HSE determine a business has not discharged its health and safety obligations and decide to prosecute, the resultant fines are potentially unlimited and accompany a criminal conviction.”

Meanwhile, last month, Cranswick revealed that three of its staff had lost their lives to COVID-19​ and the company was providing full support to their families and other staff directly affected by the coronavirus.

Related topics: Legal, COVID-19

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