Employers who fail to adequately protect their staff from swine flu could face lawsuits reaching tens of thousands of pounds.
Lawyers have warned employers that if staff can prove they contracted the virus at work – and their employer did not do enough to prevent infection – they could pursue costly personal injury claims under health and safety legislation.
Last week, the government predicted 12% of the workforce could be off with swine flu by September.
James Wilders, employment partner at law firm Dickinson Dees, urged businesses to take action to ensure their plans for minimising the risk of infection were well communicated.
“There’s a fundamental principle that, as an employer, you are obliged to provide a safe working environment. If an employer breaches that in any respect, they may be liable to claims for personal injuries,” he told Personnel Today.
“If someone dies from swine flu, their dependents could pursue a claim, which could reach tens of thousands of pounds. If someone becomes ill but recovers, the claim would be hundreds rather than thousands of pounds.”
He added it would be impossible to speculate on how many cases could be brought as this would depend on the infection rate at specific employers.
“I can see scope for claims where the virus is prevalent at an employer,” he said. “By taking the necessary precautions well in advance, employers will protect themselves and their businesses from workplace disruption and the worry of lawsuits that could occur as a result.”
But Guy Lamb, an employment partner at law firm DLA Piper, added that claims could only be made in exceptional circumstances as it would be very difficult for employees to prove they were infected at work.
He said: “I think it will be one of those things where people will have a go, but if employers have taken steps in line with government guidance it will be very difficult to get a claim off the ground.”
Claims could only realistically be brought if an employee either died or suffered ongoing health problems caused by the virus, which would result in financial loss – but claimants would still have to prove the virus was contracted at work through the fault of the employer, Lamb added.