Trial lawyers nationwide have already started filing COVID-19 related lawsuits targeting nearly every industry, including agriculture. Fortunately, North Carolina’s COVID-19 Recovery Act (S.L. 2020-3) contains new liability protections for North Carolina farmers and agribusinesses.
The Act provides immunity from civil liability for “claims from any customer or employee for any injuries or death alleged to have been caused as a result of the customer or employee contracting COVID-19 while doing business with or while employed by the essential business.” N.C. Gen. Stat. 66-460. This immunity is available to businesses designated as “essential” in North Carolina Executive Order 121. That list includes “food and beverage manufacturing, production, processing, and cultivation, including farming, livestock ... and other production agriculture.” There is no question the Act will be an important tool in defending North Carolina farmers and agribusinesses from COVID-19 related lawsuits. But it’s no silver bullet.
The Act does not provide immunity for injuries or death caused by gross negligence, reckless misconduct, or intentional infliction of harm. Plaintiffs lawyers can still file COVID-19 lawsuits if they include one of these allegations. Moreover, the Act does not preclude employees from making claims under the North Carolina Workers Compensation Act.
Accordingly, N.C. agribusinesses should still implement robust compliance and liability avoidance strategies. These strategies should take into account, at a minimum, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Coronavirus Resources and the North Carolina State Government’s COVID-19 Response guidance. Agribusinesses should also examine their internal policies regarding the use and availability of personal protective equipment, sanitization procedures, social distancing, and guidelines pertaining to reporting symptoms or diagnoses of COVID-19.
Please contact Nathan Huff or Phelps’ Litigation team if you have any questions or need compliance advice and guidance on the myriad issues confronting agribusinesses in North Carolina and across the South. For more information related to COVID-19, please also see Phelps’ COVID-19: Client Resource Portal.