The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is a global pandemic. As the coronavirus spreads and continues to cause business and operational disruptions, market chaos, and individual consumer panic, it should come as no surprise that COVID-19-related litigation has already been filed and the threat of future litigation looms over global businesses and governments. Indeed, litigation involving a variety of COVID-19-related issues has already grabbed national headlines.
COVID-19 has the potential to impact pretrial proceedings and otherwise delay cases. For instance, in one lawsuit involving a Hong Kong entity, a party requested an order requiring certain depositions to take place in the United States, rather than in Hong Kong. The magistrate judge denied the request, stating it was not necessarily safer to travel to either place. The party disagreed and is fighting the order on the basis that there are peculiar circumstances that favor one location over another and that its attorneys should not have to choose between risking their health and proper representation. See Willis Electric Co. Ltd. v. Polygroup Trading Ltd. et al., Case. No. 0:15-cv-03443 (D. Minn.). In addition, trials are being delayed or continued. Further, some courts are issuing orders restricting who is permitted to enter the courthouse. Others have issued orders automatically permitting remote appearances for non-evidentiary hearings or conferences and orders that illness or exposure to illness amounts to “good cause” for a continuance request. If you are going to court, be sure to check the court’s website for any health-related restrictions.
Businesses may face claims they failed to take adequate steps to protect people. In one case, a couple who traveled on the Grand Princess cruise ship, which was held at bay for four days before docking in California, has sued Princess Cruise Lines Ltd., alleging negligence and gross negligence based on the company’s failure to adequately warn them about potential exposure to the coronavirus before they boarded or after they were on board the cruise ship. See Weissberger et al. v. Princess Cruise Lines Ltd., Case No. 2:20-cv-02267 (C.D. Cal.). More cases against Princess Cruise Lines and other cruise lines are anticipated.
Businesses should be wary of their advertising and potential deceptive trade practices claims. A proposed class action now pending in California alleges that Germ-X, a company that makes hand sanitizer, has falsely claimed that its product can fight the coronavirus. According to the lawsuit, consumers purchased hand sanitizer based on the company’s alleged lies. See Geraldine David et al. v. Vi-Jon Inc., Case No. 3:20-cv-00424 (S.D. Cal.).The maker of Purell, Gojo Industries Inc., is facing a similar suit in New York related to the company’s claims regarding the Ebola virus. See Magdiela Gonzalez et al. v. Gojo Industries Inc., Case No. 1:20-cv-00888 (S.D.N.Y.).
Consumer protection and antitrust anxieties are growing in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak. Although the United States has no federal statute prohibiting price-gouging, some state and local statutes do restrict price-gouging. As certain supplies (such as hand sanitizer and face masks) have become scarce in recent weeks, concerns of price-gouging have surfaced, including on Amazon, where media reports have indicated that certain packages of hand sanitizer were being listed for $400, rather than $10. Amazon has said it removed more than 500,000 coronavirus-related items that were listed with inflated prices. See Koenig & Perlman, No Unfair Tactics Over Coronavirus, Antitrust Officials Warns, Law360, https://www.law360.com/articles/1250735/no-unfair-tactics-over-coronavirus-antitrust-officials-warn (Mar. 6, 2020).