Under Rhode Island Workers’ Compensation Law, an occupational disease is set apart of accidental injuries in that it is not expected because it is incident to a particular employment, and it is gradual in development. Accordingly, R.I. Gen. Laws § 28-34-1(3) defines the term “occupational disease” as "a disease which is due to causes and conditions which are characteristic or peculiar to a particular trade, occupation, process of employment.” Disability arising from any cause connected with or arising from the peculiar characteristics of the employment is noted in, R.I. Gen. Laws § 28-31-1(33) as a compensable occupational disease and is therefore treated as a personal injury. Moreover, disabled employees are entitled to compensation if the occupational disease is due to the nature of the employment and is contracted within that employment. See R.I. Gen. Laws § 28-34-3 and §4.
Rhode Island has yet to address acute instances of contraction of infectious diseases in the workplace. The state is notable for having limited case law, not just in the realm of workers’ compensation, but we anticipate this issue may be litigated in the coming years, given the widespread nature, and great impact of COVID-19. It is arguable that for employees such as cashiers, waitstaff, or other individuals who work closely with the general public, that contraction of COVID-19 is a condition that is characteristic or peculiar to the particular trade, occupation or employment. We anticipate claimants’ attorneys will argue that the conditions of such particular employment, makes workers suspectable to communicable diseases. This is the argument we anticipate will be made to ensure contraction and perhaps even simple exposure of COVID-19 is determined a compensable injury.