Covid-19 business criminal law and other issues in the Czech Republic

1. Could your business face criminal (or administrative) liability for exposure or risk of exposure to COVID-19 to (1) staff or (2) business partners and the public, under existing laws or new measures to combat the virus?

Criminal liability

Yes. As of 13 March 2020, COVID-19 was registered as a transmittable human disease under Czech law. Under Sections 152 and 153 of the Czech Criminal Code, anyone who, intentionally or by negligence, causes or increases the risk of introduction or spreading of a transmittable human disease commits a crime. This criminal offence can be committed by individuals and also legal persons (if the conditions for criminal liability are met). The law does not differentiate between the subjects of exposure (i.e. whether staff, business partners or members of the public).

In assessing criminal liability and the severity of the crime, the focus will be on: (a) the circumstances under which such crimes were committed (notably the Czech government declared an emergency state as of 12 March 2020, which should last until 17 May 2020, if not extended) and; (b) the consequences of such crimes (for example, whether death was caused).

For the sake of completeness, we note that in the context of the COVID-19 epidemic, the possibility of circumstances and events giving rise to criminal liability for additional crimes cannot be excluded. These might include public endangerment or spreading of a false alarming message.

Administrative liability

There is no specific administrative offence similar to the abovementioned criminal offence. However, we note that administrative liability of businesses may arise in relation to breaches of emergency measures adopted by the Government or the Ministry of Health in relation resolve the risks of the COVID-19 epidemic.

2. Could senior management or other company representatives face criminal or other liability for any such exposure or risk of exposure?

Yes. If the spreading of transmittable human disease is attributable to a decision of senior management or other company representatives, they may be individually held liable.

In addition, personal liability of senior management or company representative does not absolve the company of its corporate criminal liability. On the contrary, companies can be criminally liable if the spreading of transmittable human disease is caused by a member of the company´s statutory body, a manager with controlling or managing position, anyone who exercises decisive influence over the company or the company´s employee in the course of carrying out work for the company. In these circumstances, a company may absolve itself of criminal liability only if it can prove that it had made every reasonable effort which could be required to prevent the relevant people from committing the crime.

Administrative liability

There is no specific liability for senior management or other company representatives under administrative law.

Civil liability

Yes. If the company breaches (by its fault) statutory provisions which result in harm caused to other persons, civil law liability may arise. In most cases, however, it would be the company who would be liable for the actions taken by the senior management and/or other company representatives. The senior management and/or other company representatives may be directly liable only in cases they were not authorised to act on behalf of the company (or acted in excess of their authorisation).

3. What are the potential penalties for (1) the business and (2) its management?

 Criminal liability

For businesses, the Czech Act on Criminal Liability of Legal Entities prescribes various sanctions which may be imposed (dissolution of the legal entity, forfeiture of property or assets, monetary sanction, an order prohibiting certain activity, a ban on participation in public procurement, a ban on receiving subsidies and state aid and publication of the judgment).

For management, a sanction of imprisonment up to 12 years can be imposed in the worst case scenario (i.e. for spreading the disease intentionally and causing the death of at least two persons). In addition, the Czech Criminal Code enables the court to impose further sanctions (for example community services, monetary sanction and an order to prohibit certain activity).

As already mentioned above, a state of emergency was introduced in the Czech Republic which, in the context of criminal liability, constitutes a generally aggravating circumstance and could in fact also result in imposition of a harsher sanction than which would be imposed under normal circumstances.

Administrative liability

As mentioned above, administrative penalties may be imposed only in relation to breaches of emergency measures adopted by the Government or the Ministry of Health in relation resolve the risks of the COVID-19 epidemic. The potential penalties are monetary sanctions up to CZK 3,000,000 (approx. EUR 111,111)

4. Have prosecutors or regulators brought any cases so far?

At the time of writing, we are not aware of any actual prosecutions of businesses or senior management relating to breaches of the current situation. Nevertheless, there have been a few cases of individuals who were coughing/spitting/trying to bite emergency workers (doctors, nurses, police officers etc.) while claiming to be infected with the virus (usually untruthfully). We are, however, not aware of potential sanctions (if already any) imposed on them. 

5. Are there any specific measures mandated for companies continuing to operate or resuming operations during the pandemic, concerning exposure to staff, business partners and/or the general public?

Yes. According to the emergency measures adopted during the emergency state, the majority of businesses operated in establishments had to be closed. The emergency measures are gradually lifting this prohibition for more businesses.

The opened establishments have to comply with specified health & safety obligations, namely: (i) to actively prevent customers from being closer than two meters to themselves; (ii) to ensure that the queues both inside and outside the shops are operated in minimum distance of two meters mainly via placing marks; (iii) to place disinfectant products at regularly touched places (for example door handles, railings and trolleys) so the customers and employees may regularly use them; (iv) to ensure that employees wear gloves when touching goods and when accepting payment from customers; and (v) to ensure that customers are informed about the rules, mainly via information posters at entrance and inside the shop or through the speakers.

There are also other business-specific measures. For example consumers are not permitted to try on clothes and restaurants may only sell foods in a takeaway form through a dispensing windows and since 11 May 2020 the customers may actually be served outside of the premises (at the so called outside gardens, provided that there is at least 1,5m distance between tables).

In addition: (i) all businesses are advised to use cashless payment tools due to hygienic reasons and to limit direct contact with clients; and (ii) all people are obliged to wear a respirator, face mask, scarf, shawl, or other tools preventing droplet infection from spreading when in other places than the place of their residence.

The Government also issued a recommendation to all employers to: (i) transfer workers to home office wherever possible, (ii) support holidays and paid leaves for employees, (iii) limit the performance of work which is not essential to maintain the employer´s operations.

6. What potential liability could there be for civil claims by (1) staff and (2) business partners and members of the public in respect of infection (or other health issues) allegedly connected with a business’ operations during lockdown or in the aftermath?How might liability arise? Could companies face class-actions/ group claims?

As mentioned above, if company breaches by its fault statutory provisions which results in causing harm to other persons, civil law liability may arise. For the liability to arise, that the following must be met (i) a company breached statutory provisions, (ii) by its fault, (iii) which resulted in harm to other person, (iv) there is a causal link between the harm caused and the breach of statutory provisions.

Regarding the liability of an employer towards its employees, the employer could be, in theory, also liable under employment law for occupational disease or for work accident. Nevertheless, we note that this still being discussed in the Czech Republic and there is currently no definitive answer on this.

Czech law does not yet recognise the institute of class-action lawsuits.

Portrait of Tomáš Matĕjovský
Tomáš Matĕjovský
Partner
Prague
Portrait of Jan Ježek
Jan Ježek
Associate
Prague
Portrait of Filip Gvozdek
Filip Gvozdek
Associate
Prague