Business owners face legal risks by defying Wolf’s order

Garry Lenton//May 11, 2020

Business owners face legal risks by defying Wolf’s order

Garry Lenton//May 11, 2020

Governor Tom Wolf warns counties and business owners there will be consequences if they open in violation of his stay-at-home order. PHOTO/FILES –

Business owners thinking of defying the Wolf administration’s stay-at-home order must weigh the legal liabilities and other risks before hanging that “Open For Business” sign in the window, legal experts say.

The risks include:

  • Losing a state issued operating license.
  • Lawsuits if a customer contracts the virus on the business owner’s property.
  • Workers’ Compensation complaints from employees who become sick on the job.
  • Denial of insurance claims for businesses that opened in violation of the governor’s order.
  • Loss of reputation, or customers.

“It’s not a slam-dunk liability, but it is a real risk for businesses that decide to open,” said Martin Siegel, an attorney with Barley Snyder who leads the firm’s COVID response team and also holds a master’s degree in public health and formerly worked for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “We’re in entirely new territory, here.”

Over the weekend, several counties that were not included in Gov. Tom Wolf’s list of those moving from the red to the yellow phase to re-open, announced plans to re-open on their own. Those counties included Cumberland, Dauphin, Lancaster, Lebanon, Perry and York.

Some Lehigh Valley counties did the same, including Northampton, Berks and Schuylkill.

District attorneys for many issued statements saying they would not prosecute businesses for failing to comply with the Wolf administration’s three-phase, county-by-county reopening process.

Wolf denounced the county efforts as “cowardly,” and pledged there would be consequences if they go forward with their plans.

“I cannot allow residents in a red county to get sick because their local officials can’t see the invisible risk of the virus in their community,” he said in a statement. “So, I must, and I will impose consequences if a county locally lifts restrictions when it has not yet been given the go-ahead by the state.”

The weight of the governor’s authority is something business owners should consider when making their decision, said Rebecca Warren, former Northampton County Judge, and former District Attorney, now with the Norris McLaughlin law firm in Allentown.

“The governor has the authority to potentially have a business owner’s license revoked,” she said. “Will that actually happen, I don’t know… but there is a lot of uncertainty for business right now in Pennsylvania.”

Business owners must weigh all of the risks and make a decision “based on their needs,” she said. “It’s really daunting for the small business owner to know where they stand legally.”

Siegel agreed.

“As of today, I haven’t seen anything that changes the legal mandate of the governor’s order,” he said.