Yes, but only under a specific set of circumstances. Also, actually receiving any money from the person who made you sick will be difficult.
The Legal and Scientific Details
If an infected person intentionally transmits a virus, they can be sued for inflicting an intentional tort. A tort is a harm for which a victim can claim compensation. “Intentional” is both self-explanatory and the point on which any personal injury or wrongful death lawsuit over the transmission of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 world turn.
While much remains to be discovered about exactly how the virus officially known as SARS-CoV-2 moves from person to person and triggers symptoms, experts consulted by the World Health Organization have reached the consensus conclusion that “the new coronavirus is a respiratory virus which spreads primarily through droplets generated when an infected person coughs or sneezes, or through droplets of saliva or discharge from the nose.”
Deliberately infecting someone could be as easy as knowing you have COVID-19 and coughing, sneezing or spitting on them. And with national death rates ranging from 4 percent in the United States to 13 percent in Italy, such a deliberate act could be tantamount to attempted murder.
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Intentionally Transmitting Coronavirus Viewed as Terrorism
A March 24, 2020, memo from the U.S. Department of Justice advises law enforcement personnel and prosecutors that
You may encounter criminal activity ranging from malicious hoaxes, to threats targeting specific individuals or the general public, to the purposeful exposure and infection of others with COVID-19. Because coronavirus appears to meet the statutory definition of a “biological agent” under 18 U.S.C. § 178(1), such acts potentially could implicate the Nation’s terrorism-related statutes. See, e.g., id. § 175 (development/possession of a biological agent for use as a weapon); id. § 875 (threats by wire); id. § 876 (threats by mail); id. § 1038 (false information and hoaxes regarding biological weapons); id. § 2332a (use of a weapon involving a biological agent). Threats or attempts to use COVID-19 as a weapon against Americans will not be tolerated.
Less than three weeks later, two people had been charged in separate incidents with attempting to incite terror by intentionally spreading the novel coronavirus. ABC reported that neither of the charged individuals—one in Florida and one in Texas—actually suffered from COVID19. Both remain in custody and could face long prison sentences.
Crimes Give Rise to Intentional Tort Lawsuits
The law enforcement personnel threatened with coronavirus infection definitely have grounds for suing the people who threatened them. Even though no disease was transmitted, intentionally causing emotion distress and threatening to cause harm are both crimes and tortious acts.
Other crimes that can lead to civil lawsuits are fraud, assault and manslaughter. Such lawsuits can proceed and be won by plaintiffs (i.e., the victims) even if the perpetrators/defendants are not convicted in criminal court. Despite this, intentional tort lawsuits are rare.
In Virginia and other states, courts employ a very high standard for proving intent. And when that standard can be met, few defendants have the personal resources to pay judgments that can run into the hundreds of thousands or millions for medical expenses, lost wages, pain and suffering, and punitive damages. Insurance companies do not pay out on claims for intentional torts.
My Virginia Beach-based personal injury law firm colleagues and I want everyone to remain safe during the ongoing public health crisis. We also want anyone who intentionally spreads coronavirus infection to be held accountable. Filing an intentional tort lawsuit could be part of that reckoning, but the better recourse may be criminal courts.
An experienced personal injury attorney with dual licensure in Virginia and North Carolina, Eric Washburn received a B.B.A. in Finance from James Madison University—initially worked in the information technology field before obtaining his law degree from Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Lansing, Michigan. Once an Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney in Danville, Va., Eric has been recognized by Super Lawyers Magazine as a “Rising Star” Super Lawyer in Virginia since 2014.