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Is Coughing on Someone an Assault?

We are living through a global pandemic thanks to the COVID-19 virus, and many people are on much higher alert about their surroundings and the people near them than ever before. It is reasonable to wonder if the people near you have been taking precautions to keep themselves and those around them safe, especially if they happen to cough or display other COVID-like symptoms. In many places, it is a crime to cough on someone with the intent to spread disease, and it can lead to the loss of employment or even jail time.

Why Coughing Could Be Criminalized

In many cases, intentionally coughing on another person can lead to assault charges and criminal liability. If you have already tested positive for COVID-19 and attempt to infect another person deliberately, you may even receive charges for criminal battery or domestic terrorism. However, in Wisconsin, these cases are often tried as assault because physical contact must be made in order for a claim to be considered battery. Assault simply requires the threat of bodily harm or contact.

Ultimately, a single cough carrying coronavirus particles could lead to the death of one or more people if they contract the illness. Although there isn’t a wealth of precedent regarding COVID-19 and the law, the United States Department of Justice has stated that the coronavirus “meets the statutory definition of a biological agent under federal terrorism statutes.”

Although this might make you want to hold your coughs in for good, some standards need to be met for a cough to be criminalized:

  • If you cough at another person intentionally and your respiratory droplets make contact with that person, it is classified as battery.
  • Suppose you cough at another person intentionally, but no respiratory droplets make contact with them; that person could not claim battery but could claim assault because you have provided them with a rational reason to fear bodily harm.

Consider the Context

When it comes to the criminalization of coughing in the context of spreading COVID-19, there are some indicators of whether the person who coughed can be liable even if contact with another person is made. For someone to be charged with an assault or battery for coughing on another, they must be infected with the coronavirus and be aware of their status before the cough occurs. In addition, someone accused of assault for coughing must be behaving recklessly for the said cough to legally be considered assault.

Accidents happen, and people infected with the coronavirus may still need to attend to their errands, such as grocery shopping or visiting healthcare professionals. If someone sick with COVID-19 coughed and a customer was behind them without their knowledge, they could not be held liable for an assault or battery.

Do Criminal Charges Happen?

Unfortunately, the answer is yes; since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic and mask mandates at state and county levels, a significant amount of people have been arrested and even convicted for coughing on others with the intent to cause harm. Earlier this year, a woman from Florida received 30 days in jail for coughing on a customer in a Pier 1 store. An Iowa man was sentenced to 10 years in jail for coughing on and attacking a fellow customer at an eyewear store after being asked to pull his mask up to cover his nose.

I’ve Been Accused at Work. What’s Next?

If you have been accused of assault for coughing on a coworker or have lost your job due to a similar accusation, you may be wondering what your rights are and how you should proceed. Wisconsin is an at-will state, meaning your employer can terminate their working relationship with you at any time and for any reason. Conversely, an employee can do the same. However, there are some things to keep in mind regarding your employment and the termination of said employment.

If you work remotely for an employer based outside of your state, the laws where they are located may supercede the laws of your state in regards to your employment. Also, consider what preceeded your termination. Many terminations in similar cases have made national headlines, and your company may seek to fire you in retaliation for bringing negative press to their company.

Contact an Attorney Today

If you feel that you have been wrongfully accused of a violent crime or wrongfully terminated from your job as a result, contact the Law Offices of Christopher J. Cherella today at (414) 882-8382 or via this online form. He will work resolutely to help you with your case. With over 20 years of experience, Attorney Cherella will provide you with personalized and empathetic service and guide you through the process at every step.