COVID-19: Risks and liabilities to be considered by the Board of Directors of Indian Companies

Posted On - 20 March, 2020 • By - Jidesh Kumar

Understanding transmission of the virus is key to its containment and future prevention’ – David Veesler, a structural virologist based in Seattle. 

The buck stops at the Board! As the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus COVID19 continue to rise, the most asked question around the globe is- How to stop the spread of this deadly virus? Thanks to television and social media, we are flooded with preventive measures and cures to combat COVID19. Should the Board of Directors of various Indian companies believe that taking adequate hygiene measures to ensure workplace safety are enough to combat the situation?

What are the COVID-19 Risk and Liabilities for Board of Directors?

Work From Home and
Workplace Safety:

Allowing employees
to work from home may not just be a feel-good option. As employers, Indian
corporates are vicariously liable to provide a safe working environment. A comfortable
work environment during normal times could be unsafe during the spread of such
a pandemic; for reasons seemingly beyond the employer’s control.

All companies and
senior management must consider work from home as a preventive remedy to
contain the spread of the virus. In a recent case in Agra, a First Information
Report was filed under section 269[1] and 270[2] of the Indian Penal Code against
an infected lady for escaping quarantine and travelling from one state to

promoting, or passively contributing to a situation that enables the virus to
spread can be a punishable offence for which a company and its Board could be
held liable. Police have registered a case under sections 143[3], 147[4], 149[5], 188[6] and 283[7] of the Indian Penal Code against
a television celebrity, Rajith Kumar in Cochin [Kerala], for violating the
COVID19 advisory. Hundreds of his fans gathered at the airport to greet him. Similarly,
the responsibility of directing employees to adhere to preventive regulations
falls upon the directors and officers.

In these difficult
times, it is a duty of the employer to prevent the spread of the pandemic by
avoiding gathering at workplace and directors are bound to take decisions to
prevent situations that could promote the virus to spread; not doing so could
lead to allegations of negligence. The first instance which comes to mind in
this context is a workplace canteen.

It is not uncommon
to see canteens overcrowded, either because of the peak lunch hour, the
caterers serving food are awaited, space constraint, or due to formal or
informal celebrations. In short, situations purportedly created or permitted by
the employer due to which employees have no choice but to expose themselves to
a greater risk of spread of the pandemic. Some factories and offices have
extended working hours of canteens and are providing workmen with breaks in
shifts to avoid gathering of large crowds. The same is done to ensure that the
workflow and culture of the workplace are not disrupted.

Empathize towards
the employees:

Awareness is like the sun. When it shines on
things, they are transformed.

Creating awareness
among employees can contain panic. Using the company’s internal communication
tools, the Board of Directors should provide detailed and updated information
about the virus, its symptoms, precautionary measures, etc. from time to time.
Company must update their current policies to deal with the issue at hand and
ensure proper reporting channels from those who are affected or have symptoms
of the virus to the top management directly, because delay, could only
attribute to trouble.

and Leave:

the obligation to provide a safe working environment also requires companies to
put travel curbs in place – including monitoring of personal travel. Management
needs to vocally discourage a typical tendency where employees show their dedication
by being present at the workplace even if they are unwell because if these sick
employees spread disease, it is the employer who will be vicariously liable to
the affected employees. In Karnataka, a 28 day paid and casual leave has been
mandated for employees infected with COVID19. 

from workplace:

is essential for the reporting heads and management to consider sick leaves,
without apprehension and accommodate such leaves of the employee who intend to
remain absent from work. Typically, such acts of employees in excess could
cause repercussions from the employer, however, it is required to be mindful of
such issues and allow the same in the interest of the company, This however,
shall be guided by the company policy in place already, and hence recommended
that the Board of Directors be flexible while approving such absenteeism.

Management Plan and Communication:

major role of the Board in enterprise risk oversight is to make sure that there
are contingency plans in place even before a crisis arise. It is the
responsibility of the Board of Directors to create a disaster management plan
to be documented in the minutes of the meetings of the Board in order to ensure
transparency and clarity on expectations. The Board must consider such crises
as global and react proactively to be solution-oriented. The Board has to
exhibit great leadership to ensure that the rest of the people in the company
do not panic. Constant communication and guidance is the key. For instance,
many courts have not allowed for ‘force majeure’ clauses to cover the
coronavirus disease for not being able to consummate transactions and
obligations under contracts. Such alerts must be communicated to relevant teams
so that the manner of handling specific situations is known. 


is the implied duty of the Board of Directors to provide a safe and hygienic
workplace to its employees, Sanitizing floors, lifts, desks, computers and
keyboards, printers, fax machines, including surface tables that employees use
in common is essential and contributes to a safe and hygienic work environment.
Installation of hand sanitizers in common floor areas may ensure proper hygiene
and less absenteeism.


Board should ensure that adequate group insurance policies are in place, and
details such as nature and extent of coverage, designated hospitals, manner of
settlement, emergency handling, etc., are notified to all employees. The Board
should have adequate Directors and Officers (D&O) liability cover in place. 


the rise of cases in India and elsewhere, the criticality of COVID -19 seems to
be increasing by the hour. It is of utmost importance that directors be
proactive to curb the virus and ensure safety of their employees. This will
also help reduce risk and liability from legal claims to which, during these harrowing
times, the Board and directors have higher exposure to than can be

party claims cannot be underestimated during these testing times, more so for
Indian corporate having operations or securities listed abroad. The following
are merely instances– 

  • Customer communication – what all
    needs to be done to prevent claims of negligence, non-performance, delay in
    delivery, product liability due to coronavirus? 
  • Investor engagement – handling
    business disruption, insider trading (should trading windows be closed?),
    revision of earnings guidance, balancing disclosure and privacy concerns;
    should an upcoming general meeting be postponed? 
  • Can business disruption be covered
    adequately by insurance?
  • Does the failure to respond
    appropriately to the coronavirus outbreak lead to enforcement actions alleging
    consumer protection violations, or environmental law violations?
  • If a factory or workplace is to be
    evacuated and disinfected, can payment of rent be suspended?
  • Is there a need for special insurance
    cover for key employees who are vital for the survival of the business?
  • Is there a need to revisit key
    documents such as shareholders’ agreements, limited partnership agreements and
    the like?

the assistance of outside counsel to benchmark with the right industry practice
is extremely essential to address these unique issues. 

  • [1] Negligent act likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to life.—Whoever unlawfully or negligently does any act which is, and which he knows or has reason to believe to be, likely to spread the infection of any disease dangerous to life, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to six months, or with fine, or with both.
  • [2] Malignant act likely to spread infection of disease danger­ous to life.—Whoever malignantly does any act which is, and which he knows or has reason to believe to be, likely to spread the infection of any disease dangerous to life, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.
  • [3] Whoever is a member of an unlawful assembly, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to six months, or with fine, or with both.
  • [4] Whoever is guilty of rioting, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.
  • [5] Every member of unlawful assembly guilty of offence commit­ted in prosecution of common object.—If an offence is committed by any member of an unlawful assembly in prosecution of the common object of that assembly, or such as the members of that assembly knew to be likely to be committed in prosecution of that object, every person who, at the time of the committing of that offence, is a member of the same assembly, is guilty of that offence.
  • [6] Disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant.—Whoever, knowing that, by an order promulgated by a public serv­ant lawfully empowered to promulgate such order, he is directed to abstain from a certain act, or to take certain order with certain property in his possession or under his management, disobeys such direction, shall, if such disobedience causes or tends to cause obstruction, annoyance or injury, or risk of obstruction, annoyance or injury, to any person lawfully employed, be punished with simple impris­onment for a term which may extend to one month or with fine which may extend to two hundred rupees, or with both; and if such disobedience causes or trends to cause danger to human life, health or safety, or causes or tends to cause a riot or affray, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to six months, or with fine which may extend to one thousand rupees, or with both. Explanation.—It is not necessary that the offender should intend to produce harm, or contemplate his disobedience as likely to produce harm. It is sufficient that he knows of the order which he disobeys, and that his disobedience produces, or is likely to produce, harm. Illustration An order is promulgated by a public servant lawfully empowered to promulgate such order, directing that a religious procession shall not pass down a certain street. A knowingly disobeys the order, and thereby causes danger of riot. A has committed the offence defined in this section.
  • [7] Danger or obstruction in public way or line of navigation.—Whoever, by doing any act, or by omitting to take order with any property in his possession or under his charge, causes danger, obstruction or injury to any person in any public way or public line of navigation, shall be punished with fine which may extend to two hundred rupees.

Contributed By – Jidesh Kumar
Designation – Managing Partner

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