It is clear that the pandemic has brought new legal challenges to the forefront, making it more important than ever to understand the potential legal and financial liabilities associated with any decisions.
A growing number of Americans are grappling with legal challenges that are gaining prominence and creating significant legal liability in today’s post-pandemic world, whether they’re starting a business or dealing with a sexually transmitted disease.
The following is some practical guidance based on our experience helping business owners and individuals navigate these and other complex civil and commercial litigation issues:
Disclosures of Sexually Transmitted Diseases
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, STDs have continued to skyrocket since the pandemic with no signs of slowing. Some 2.5 million new cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis were reported in the United States in 2021 alone. As the use of dating apps and social media platforms continues to rise among folks looking for romance, we are seeing a new flurry of litigation and applications of laws surrounding the failure to properly disclose known STDs to sexual partners. Experts agree that the pandemic elevated the popularity of these platforms to unexpected heights, a trend expected to continue in the foreseeable future.
Most people are surprised to learn that it is illegal for anyone who is aware they have an STD to have sexual intercourse without informing their potential partners and obtaining their consent beforehand. In Florida, this law applies unilaterally across the board to any type of relationship —whether the parties met for a first time through a dating app or have been married for years. Failure to comply with these laws can result in first-degree misdemeanor convictions for first-time offenders or third-degree felony convictions for first-time offenders who transmitted a disease to his or her sexual partner, with penalties increasing for repeat violations (i.e., unlawful intercourse with multiple sexual partners). Cases involving transmission of HIV or AIDS are classified as third-degree to first-degree felony crimes. In addition to covering medical bills, medication and pain and suffering, convicted parties also can face prison time for these felony offenses.
Adding further dimension to this issue: HIPAA laws do not protect from public disclosure in litigation the medical records of anyone with an STD, as the information is considered fundamentally relevant to the heart of any legal matter. This means that an individual’s STD status and related medical information could be publicly disclosed in discovery and related court filings.
Given the skyrocketing number of reported STD cases and the potential legal repercussions of not disclosing an STD before having sex, it is critical for individuals to have open and honest conversations with their partners about their STD status. In addition to helping protect the individual from legal liabilities, this also promotes sexual health and safety for all parties involved.
Deeds Versus Wills
The stay-at-home orders and the need to isolate during the pandemic has had a significant impact on relationships and the way people choose to live (or not live) together.
On one hand, more people decided to start living together, and many of them decided to also add the names of their cohabitants to the deeds of their individually owned properties. Many of these people are learning the hard way that adding cohabitants to deeds can create an unexpected bevy of issues. For these reasons, experts recommend drafting a will as an alternative to adding a partner’s name to the deed of a solely owned property.
On the other hand, the pandemic is also credited for motivating a growing number of married couples to live in separate homes or get divorced. According to data from the Census Bureau’s America’s Families and Living Arrangements, the percentage of married couples who live apart rose by more than 25% between 2000 and 2019, and started to rise again in 2021. As of last year, there were “3.89 million Americans living apart from their spouses, or approximately 2.95% of married Americans.”
In light of all these changes in cohabitation, the question of legal entitlement to previously shared property is becoming a growing sticking point. For example, if a couple is living together and one partner requests to be added to the homeowner’s deed out of fear of being left with nothing after the homeowner’s death, a will that leaves the house in the partner’s name not only addresses this concern, but also can be easily amended if the relationship ends. On the other hand, if that partner’s name was instead added to the deed, removing it can be a complicated and time-consuming process that requires mutual consent and cooperation. If the couple’s relationship ends on a sour note, this can be difficult to obtain, and legal assistance may be required to properly address the issue. Without a doubt, we can expect to see more of these cases.
Running a Business Without Proper Operating Documents Can Have Severe Consequences
While the pandemic has brought about unprecedented economic challenges for many businesses, it has also created opportunities for entrepreneurs to start their own businesses. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2020 saw a record-breaking number of new business formation applications, surpassing any previous year on record. However, many new business owners may not have fully considered the legal risks associated with starting a new venture, and are finding themselves in difficult positions for failing to consult legal counsel prior to forming their new businesses.
One such potential issue that may arise is the death of a business partner. Without a clear and legally binding agreement in place, the death of a business partner can result in costly disputes and even the potential loss of the business itself. In the absence of operating documents, state laws, such as those in Florida, may dictate the outcome, potentially leading to confusion and uncertainty for all parties involved. For example, if a business is set up as a corporation, the deceased partner’s estate could step in the shoes of your former partner, and you could be stuck with a business partner you never wanted or even leave yourself open to a fight over who owns the company. If the business is set up as a partnership, the death of a partner could automatically dissolve the partnership and cause significant disruptions in any ongoing business activities.
It is clear that the pandemic has brought new legal challenges to the forefront, making it more important than ever to understand the potential legal and financial liabilities associated with any decisions. Whether navigating the laws surrounding STDs, dealing with property ownership issues, or starting a new business, it is crucial to understand the legal risks associated and to work with qualified advisers, including legal counsel, who can help chart the best path forward. Those who do will gain a significant advantage and position themselves for maximum success in 2023 and beyond.