Some Businesses Ask You to Waive Your Right to Sue if You Get COVID; What You Need to Know

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As businesses work to make customers feel safe enough to return, it isn't only your safety they're worried about. The News4 I-Team found many are taking steps to protect themselves by having customers sign a waiver promising not to sue the business if they get sick.

In the era of COVID-19, everything from working out to eating out carries new risk, especially if you're spending a long time indoors or face to face with employees.

"It is like baby steps back to doing the things you need to do, that you couldn't do for 3 or 4 months," said District resident Emily Samose. "I guess it is all relative, but I feel like I'm being safe."

Samose said she felt comfortable getting a pedicure after observing the safety measures at Toe Tally Nails in Northwest D.C.

"We're really happy to reopen. Yeah, we've been missing all my clients," said owner Lonnie Nguyen. "But before we opened, we made sure all my clients (will) be safe and healthy."

Nguyen built clear partitions to place between her employees and customers to allow them to see each other face to face while limiting the close contact.

"The first week is really busy, but after that it slowed down because people, they still are really nervous," Nguyen said.

She's nervous, too, about her employees' safety and her own as a business owner.

After a quick fever check, every customer signs in on an iPad — with a waiver acknowledging the COVID risks.  

"To make sure you know all the questions, you agree and then with initial everything," said Nguyen.

"Every business is addressing this a little differently," said Harold Kim, president of the Institute for Legal Reform for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which represents 3 million businesses across the country.

The organization is pushing Congress to shield all businesses from COVID-19 liability as part of the latest coronavirus relief legislation.

"If you're doing the right thing, you shouldn't be sued. That's really the gist of it," said Kim.

Kim said waivers at individual businesses are not as reliable because the courts don't always enforce them. He added that he's never seen businesses as concerned about lawsuits as they are right now.

"I think the biggest risk is going to come from the plaintiff lawyers who are looking to potentially capitalize on a bonanza of potential litigation," Kim said.

But the National Association of Consumer Advocates worries sweeping liability protection might encourage some businesses not to take as many precautions to keep customers and employees safe.

"They want to make sure that if consumers are harmed, that they don't bear any risk for their own negligence," said Ira Rheingold, executive director of the National Association of Consumer Advocates.

Rheingold says if businesses behave responsibly and follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, they should not have to worry about liability.

"The chance of a consumer being able to 1) get COVID, 2) identify the place where it happened and then bring a successful lawsuit against that company is really low," Rheingold said.

At Foundation Fitness in Northwest D.C., co-owner Dega Schembri says she took every precaution she could think of, even adding a web feature showing how many others are in the gym at that moment so clients can time their workouts when it's less crowded.

Coronavirus Cases in DC, Maryland and Virginia

COVID-19 cases by population in D.C. and by county in Maryland and Virginia

Source: DC, MD and VA Health Departments
Credit: Anisa Holmes / NBC Washington

"It's really important that we made our gym as safe as we can possibly do it," Schembri said.

She's leaving doors open for fresh air circulation and supplying spray bottles to disinfect each piece of socially distanced equipment.

Even the pen her customers use to sign her liability waiver sits in a special disinfecting block between uses.  

"It just would take one situation to completely destroy you," said Schembri. "So I would love to have more protection for myself, especially as a small business.

Customer Emily Samose said she was surprised to see a waiver at a nail salon, but she  didn't mind signing it. She equates it with going paddleboarding or kayaking.

"I feel like my whole life I've been signing these waivers for things that I choose to do that might be risky," she said, adding that she never thought that list would include a pedicure.

Businesses have the right to refuse to serve customers who refuse to sign a waiver.

Rheingold said he'd look for a comparable business that wasn't requiring one.

"I think the idea of having consumers waive liability when they enter into a business is a really bad idea," he said.

Rheingold said there's even more concern about businesses forcing employees to return to work and then to sign a liability waiver in case they get sick.

The U.S. Chamber pointed out that even if the federal legislation grants sweeping legal protection to businesses, employees would still have the workers compensation program and Occupational Safety and Health Administration's workplace safety complaint system to keep them safe.

Reported by Jodie Fleischer, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Jeff Piper.

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