Legal ramifications of exposing someone to COVID-19 murky, says Winnipeg lawyer

After months of living amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Manitobans are familiar with public health guidelines and ways to keep themselves — and others — safe.

But what if someone with the coronavirus deliberately infects another person? A Winnipeg lawyer says it’s a tricky situation, one that may have some parallels to those who have been charged with exposing others to HIV.

“There’s a case in Manitoba… where a person with HIV spat upon police officers and was charged and convicted of assault and aggravated assault,” Bob Sokalski told 680 CJOB.

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“So if someone commits that type of intentional act, with COVID-19 when they know, or ought to have known, that they were infected, they could be exposed to the criminal justice system.”

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Could is the operative word. Sokalski said that in his opinion, that person would be acting negligently, recklessly and intentionally, but it’s difficult to prove.

There’s precedent in Nova Scotia where a person, knowing he had HIV, had intimate contact with another person and infected them. The court, said Sokalski, found there was liability because the accused knew they were infected and acted recklessly and intentionally.

COVID-19, however, is quite distinct from HIV in terms of how it can be contracted.

Read more: Hundreds of accused Manitobans held in isolation at Winnipeg Remand Centre

“To prove liability for negligence, one has to prove that there’s a duty, that duty’s been breached — and in this case, I’d argue that in fact, there is a duty, given the fact that there are public health orders out there.

“There’s huge amounts of publicity, so someone can’t be willfully blind to the exposure that they may create in a breach of their duty to the public,” he said.

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“But how does a person who’s been infected prove that the negligent person caused that infection, when there’s all sorts of other opportunities to be infected?”

That difficulty, he said, is why it’s a tricky issue to take legal action on, because the myriad of ways someone could pick up the virus — especially if they spend any time out in public — makes it difficult to prove who passed on the virus, let alone whether it was done intentionally.

Deliberate exposure aside, Manitobans remain concerned about the chance of picking up COVID-19 unintentionally. As numbers continue to rise across the province, Manitoba’s chief public health official advised residents — not for the first time — to avoid gatherings.

“Many of these cases are linked to social gatherings in larger groups,” Dr. Brent Roussin said on Tuesday.

“I urge Manitobans to reduce the number of contacts you have. Don’t socialize in groups or with people outside your household.”

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