Anthrax Liability Up in The Air

November 16, 2001

While the number of mail-related anthrax cases may be on the decline, employers are looking at how to protect themselves against another sort of exposure – legal action should an employee fall ill from the handling of employer mail while on the job.

According to a Washington Post report, numerous firms across the country, particularly in the Washington and New York areas, have revamped their handling of incoming mail in the past month, after four people died and at least 13 more were infected with anthrax that apparently worked its way through the mail. Rubber gloves and masks for mailroom workers, special ventilation equipment, and restrictions on where mail can be opened have become routine, especially at companies with large numbers of employees.

While these companies almost uniformly point to employee safety as their main reason for the changes, some report that they are also keeping in mind the unknown legal territory of anthrax liability, possibly falling victim to some workers’ compensation claims.

For those infected with anthrax, the only straightforward recipient for damages is most likely the person or group responsible for the bio-terrorism attacks. But even if the guilty party is eventually caught, obtaining money from that person or group may not be easy, particularly if the ultimate source of the attacks is outside the U.S.

That difficulty could make victims turn to seeking damages from their own employers and the government agencies that failed to prevent the movement of anthrax.

Legal experts said that those entities’ exposure to lawsuits is slim and that plaintiffs would face an uphill struggle.

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