U.S. District Judge Stephanie A. Gallagher said that while the majority of factors weigh in favor of letting Carol Madden's suit go forward, the effect of doing so would permit any number of third parties to file similar suits alleging that their spouses or acquaintances' employers got them sick.
The judge also found that despite Madden's insistence that her husband must have been infected through her because of the training session, the ubiquity of COVID-19 creates uncertainty as to whether that is the case, as incidental and unavoidable contact can also transmit the virus.
Allowing the suit to go through would allow other potential plaintiffs to make similar allegations with even more tenuous links, flooding companies with "countless" lawsuits from people who had contact with their employees during the pandemic, the judge wrote, but allowed Madden to amend the suit and replead her case.
Madden's March suit alleges Southwest failed to screen attendees of a mandatory training session for COVID-19, did not require masks, and held the training session in an unventilated and crowded room with attendees situated closer than six feet to others, which caused her to contract the virus and later infect her husband, William Madden.
Southwest moved to dismiss in April, arguing Madden's husband was not its employee, and therefore it owed him no duty of care. The airline argued that a duty of care only exists if a special relationship exists between Southwest and William Madden.
In May, Madden pushed back, saying no such special relationship was necessary as it was Southwest's conduct, not inaction, that led to her husband's death.
In Wednesday's opinion, Judge Gallagher said determining the existence of a duty in this case fell somewhere between those arguments, but found that both standards result in dismissal.
While the judge found that William Madden's injury was foreseeable, that Southwest's conduct was close enough to the injury to indicate a duty, that Southwest carries the moral blame and that policy would favor preventing future harm by assigning a duty, she added that the "floodgates" effect of doing so outweighs those factors.
"It is not always as simple as Ms. Madden coming home to her husband alone," Judge Gallagher wrote. "Take, for example, an apartment building — it may be necessary for a resident to walk through a common lobby, share an elevator, and pass other residents in narrow hallways. What distinguishes those encounters, unavoidable despite compliance with CDC guidelines, from Mr. Madden? Would Southwest be liable to everyone in Ms. Madden's hypothetical apartment building?"
Dan R. Mastromarco of The Mastromarco Firm PLLP, representing Madden, told Law360 that they intend to appeal the decision, though they have not decided whether to certify a question to the state court of appeals, go to the Third Circuit or ask for a reconsideration.
He said the opinion shows that Madden's argument is right on the law in certain respects, particularly as the judge found that several factors weighed in favor of allowing the suit to go forward. He added he believes the judge is mistaken in finding that allowing the suit would open the "floodgates," as the amount of COVID-related suits has not risen to a level that should cause concern.
"We are obviously disappointed in the outcome," Mastromarco said in a press release issued late Wednesday. "But at least we feel vindicated by the court's acknowledgement of Southwest's moral obligation to show the same concern for its employees, as it claims it does for its fare-paying customers."
In a statement, Southwest said it extends its sympathies to Madden and others who have lost loved ones to COVID-19.
"Since the beginning of the pandemic, the safety and well-being of Southwest's employees and customers has been our uncompromising priority," the airline said. "Southwest will continue the airline's dedicated efforts to support our people and communities as we collectively work together to slow the spread of COVID-19."
Madden is represented by Dan R. Mastromarco of The Mastromarco Firm PLLP.
Southwest is represented by Kathryn A. Grace and William J. Katt of Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker LLP.
The case is Estate of William Madden et al. v. Southwest Airlines Co., case number 1:21-cv-00672, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland.
--Additional reporting by Y. Peter Kang. Editing by Bruce Goldman.
Update: This story has been updated with additional comment from Madden's attorney.
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