• Jackson Shields Yeiser


By Paula Jackson

October 1, 2021

Tennessee employers may assume they are insulated from COVID-19 related claims due to the passage of the Tennessee COVID-19 Recovery Act.[1] That law seemingly shields employers from legal liability for employees’ injuries or illnesses caused by the exposure (or potential exposure) to COVID unless the employer’s actions were intentional or extremely negligent. However, a recent ruling in the case of Heck v. The Copper Cellar Corporation demonstrates that shield might not always apply to every situation.[2] There, the court found that the Tennessee COVID shield law did not protect the employer.

In that case, Ms. Heck sued her former employer, the Copper Cellar, claiming it discriminated against her under the Americans with Disabilities Act because of her asthma, which increased her risk of contracting a severe case of COVID. Essentially, she claimed that the Copper Cellar terminated her instead of offering her a reasonable accommodation that would limit her exposure to COVID. Consequently, the Copper Cellar argued that the COVID-19 Recovery Act shielded it because Ms. Heck’s injury (i.e., termination) and damages sought (e.g., lost wages and emotional distress) were based on her potential exposure to COVID.

The court found that, while Ms. Heck’s injury (i.e., lost wages from her termination) related to her increased susceptibility to COVID, her claims did not arise from COVID itself. Instead, her claims arose because of the employer’s alleged discrimination based on her disability of asthma, so the court refused to shield that employer. That ruling clarifies that Tennessee’s new law does not shield employers from lawsuits that are only indirectly related to COVID, Therefore, employers should consult with counsel before taking adverse action against employees seeking accommodations to avoid contracting COVID.

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[1] See Tenn. Code Ann. 29-34-801, et seq. [2] Heck v. The Copper Cellar Corp., No. 3:21-cv-158, Doc. No. 16 (E.D. Tenn. Aug. 4, 2021).

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