THE LEGAL RESPONSIBILITIES OF FACILITIES MANAGER UNDER COVID-19 ERA

An Essay in Honour of Abdulmalik O. Egbunike

INTRODUCTION

COVID-19 is a disease caused by a new strain of coronavirus. The virus is believed can be transmitted through direct contact with respiratory droplets of an infected person and its spread has been very wide within the country and all over the world. Several measures to curtail the spread have been identified and approved by the World Health Organization (WHO) among which are self-isolation or quarantine of suspected patient of the disease. Similarly, maintenance of physical distance and wearing of face masks were recommended. These and others have changed patterns of living. Be that as it may, a facilities manager is therefore not left out in the change in the partners of living all over the World. This Essay is to examine the responsibilities of facilities manager within the context of the COVID-19 living and how to operate within the confines of the law.

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

The Coronavirus disease is a big family of different Viruses. They are referred to as zoonotics, which implies that they are normally transmitted between animals and humans. Some cause common cold in susceptible individuals.

On 31st of December, 2019, a new strain of the coronavirus, Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) emerged in Wuhan, a business hub in China. Expert globally are working hard to identify the exact source of the SARS-CoV-2 virus which though initial transmission appeared to be from an animal source, but there has been person-to-person transmission.

The outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 was declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) on 30th January, 2020 by the World Health Organization (WHO).

On 11th February, 2020, WHO announced a name for the new coronavirus disease: COVID-19, a highly transmissible and pathogenic viral infection. Throughout history, nothing has killed more human beings than infections disease.

COVID-19 GENERAL PREVENTION
COVID-19 IN NIGERIA

The first confirmed case related to the COVID-19 pandemic in Nigeria was announced on 27th February, 2020, when an Italian citizen in Lagos tested positive for the virus, caused by SARS-CoV-2.

On 9th March, 2020, a second case of the virus was reported in Ewekoro, Ogun State, a Nigeria citizen who had contact with the Italian citizen.

As of 10th May, 2020, a total of 23,835 sample have been tested. 4,151 confirmed cases, 3,278 active cases, 745 discharged and 128 deaths in 34 states and the FCT with Lagos State being the epicenter of the infection in the Country.

The Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 was established by President Muhammed Buhari on 9th March, 2020 to coordinate and oversee Nigeria’s multi-sectorial inter-government efforts to contain the spread and mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic in Nigeria.

REGULATORY AUTHORITIES

The Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) was established by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control and prevention Establishment ACT in 2011. The Centre is mandated to prevent, defect, monitor and control diseases of National and International public health importance, including emerging and re-emerging diseases. This body has been charged squarely with the management of COVID-19 pandemic.

In view of the magnitude of the pandemic an inter-ministerial body was setup to tackle the pandemic by the president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Muhammed Buhari GCON. The Principal work of the NCDC has been management of the disease. However, other regulatory authority have been supporting the Presidential Task Force (PTF) with their rules and legal responsibilities among which is Nigeria Environmental Safety and Regulatory Agency (NESREA).

NESREA has designed regulations which is referred to as “GUIDELINES FOR HANDLING OF INFECTIOUS WASTE WITHIN THE CONTEX OF CORONAVIRUS (COVID-19)”. In the regulation, the Agency defined wastes as “All wastes containing pathogens e.g. laboratory cultures, wastes from isolation wards, tissues, materials or soiled plasters and other materials contaminated with blood, urine, sputum, faeces etc of infected patients”

Consequently, it rolled out the following regulations:

  • Waste handlers should wear appropriate PPE e.g. Boots, aprons, long sleeve gowns thick gloves, mask and face shields.
  • Each containerized infectious waste must be securely closed.
  • Healthcare facilities treating COVID-19 patients should provide sealed receptacles for the waste materials.
  • Contaminated bedding should undergo steam sterilization and patient care wastes should be incinerated.
  • Disposable PPE used should be incinerated.
  • Only properly kitted workers are allowed to evacuate or transport healthcare waste from Isolation Centres.
  • Public places including markets must frequently be fumigated and decontaminated.

These regulations and the World Health Organization (WHO) regulations which has been adopted by the Presidential Task Force (PTF) must be of concern to the facilities manager as it affects their places of work or management.

  1. Other regulations are staying at home to avoid community spread of the disease; washing of hands with detergents or soap and avoid touching of faces. People who exhibits illness were advised to self-isolation
  • Thus, this brought us to what is commonly known as occupiers’ liability. The facilities manager is recognized in law as an occupier of the property or premises he is engaged to manage.

See the case of HARRIS VS BIRKENHEAD (1976) 1 WLR 279 where the court held that the occupier need not be Landlord or the owner of the premises but the person in charge or managing. This is similar to the pronouncement of the court in the case of EGBEDI VS THE REGISTERED TRUSTEES OF THE CHAPEL OF LIBERTY AND ORS (2018) Unreported judgment delivered on 9th April, 2018, Lagos High Court by Hon. Justice Candide-Johnson.

See also, WESTWOOD VS POST OFFICE (1973) 1Q. B591; (1973), ALL ER 184.

It has been defined that occupants need not to be the Landlord, it could be the FACILITIES MANAGER and or an agent.

In Westwood case where an adult employee was injured when he entered a room that was unlocked, though with a sign. The definition of an occupier was re-emphasized as it relates to property manager.

Also, in the wheat case, a guest fell in an unlit staircase and eventually died, the managers of the premises were held liable.

OCCUPIERS’ LIABILITY

Liability relates to a field of law of Tort, which concerns the duty of care owed by those who occupy real property, though whatever modes, to people who either visit or happens to be inside. Any accident, infection or injury suffered as a result of occupation or visit to the premises can be remedied in law by way of making claims. This in the cases of WHEAT V. E LACON & CO LTD (1966) AC 552.

The Occupiers’ Liability Act of 1957 regulates the standard of duty of care owed by the occupier/facilities manager to all visitors or occupants of the premises he is managing.

This law is an English law which has been adopted in Nigeria upon our independence. However, in some states of the federation, it has been re-enacted as a state law e.g.

  • Lagos State Law Reform torts law 1961
  • Anambra State torts law 2004

The law makes the manager of a premises where accident occurs liable under the law in the Egbedi case cited above, the court relied on S 1 (2) and S 2 (2) of the law to hold the church organizing a church programme liable for the injury suffered by a worshipper during the programme.

See INSTITUTE OF TROPICAL AGRICULTURE VS AMRAM AMRAM/ (1994) 3 NWLR pt 331,296 Also, UGOCHUKWU V UNIPETROL PLC (2002) 7 NWLR pt 765 @14

FACILITY MANAGERS RESPONSIBILITY

Occupiers/Facilities Manager owe a legal duty to ensure visitors are reasonably safe in using their premises. This duty extends to the conditions of the building, activities on the premises, conduct of visitors on the premises.

A situation where a person known to have been infected with covid-19 enters or reside within a premises, the failure of the occupier or owner of the premises to take reasonable care to respond to the situation makes the occupier has thus breached his legal obligation.

Even though the occupier is not expected to expose the name of the culprit as it’s in the medical practice, he should however be expected to take steps e.g.

  • Informing other occupants so that they can isolate themselves or go for test e.g. Jaiz Bank incident where a staff tested positive, all the customers attended to the previous date were traced and the premises shut down.
  • Immediate decontamination or fumigation of the premises.
  • Clear and timely warning to other occupants and visitors
  • Closure of the premises during the sterilization process
  • Provision of facilities for washing hands with soap at the entrance. Etc.

In addition, where the Government proclaim total lockdown to prevent the spread, an occupier of a commercial property that provides its premises for use during such period and consequently a person contacted the virus, it will amount to contributory negligence and as such be liable too.

FACILITIES MANAGER plays several roles, principal among which is to ensure that building and their service meet the needs of the people that work or reside in them.

The Manager is responsible to a large degree for service such as cleaning, security and parking to make sure the surrounding environment is in a suitable condition of work.

On another scale the duty and responsibility of a FACILITIES MANAGER squarely placed him in the position of a person directly or indirectly required to owe duty of care to everyone in or within the premises he’s managing. To wit the doctrine of occupier’s liability need to be secure occupiers.

Prepared by
S.B Sambo Esq.
Company Sec/Legal Adviser
Ora Egbunike & Associates