The Volokh Conspiracy

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Do Hospitals That Drop Mask Requirements Risk Liability?

Prof. Nina Kohn and I argue that they do


Prof. Nina Kohn and I have a new piece up on the Harvard Law Petrie-Flom Bill of Health blog that examines the question of liability in cases in which patients contract COVID-19 in hospitals that no longer require masks. Here is an excerpt:

Hospitals have a common law duty to act reasonably. If they unreasonably expose patients to risk, and the patients are harmed as a result, hospitals may be liable for damages. The result: patients who can show that it is probable that they were infected with COVID-19 in a hospital, and that they would not have been if the hospital had taken reasonable measures to protect them, may be able to successfully sue hospitals for damages.

The big question is what does it mean to act "reasonably" in a world in which COVID-19 abounds and remains a leading cause of death, including for children. Over the past century, courts have developed a variety of approaches to figuring out the bounds of reasonableness. In determining whether a precaution is "reasonable," modern courts commonly consider the relative costs and benefits of taking that precaution. Where an individual causes harm because they fail to take a cost-justified precaution, they may be found negligent and required to pay for the damages they have caused.

Requiring masks in direct patient care settings is a prime example of a cost-justified precaution. Masking is a simple, effective, and low-cost measure that hospitals can take to substantially reduce the spread of COVID-19. And the benefits are significant in hospital settings. Hospitals concentrate people who, as reflected in the conditions that bring them to the hospital, are both more prone to infection and more likely to face serious consequences if infected. Moreover, both healthcare providers and patients are known vectors of transmission in healthcare institutions.