Legal Liability for Early Super-spreader Events?

By Brendan P. Slean and Gaebriella DeLisle


On February 26 and 27, 2020, Biogen – a Cambridge, MA, based pharmaceutical company – held a two-day conference that was quickly deemed a “superspreader” event of COVID-19 when approximately 100 people directly involved in the conference tested positive. But the impact of the conference was far larger than those approximately 100 direct cases. Nearly eight months later, researchers estimate as many as 300,000 coronavirus infections worldwide have been linked to the conference, which accounts for approximately 1.9 percent of all known coronavirus cases in the United States through October 2020.[1]


The Biogen conference led 175 executives to travel to Boston from various countries, including Italy, Switzerland, and Germany. But within a few days, after the executives had already returned home to destinations around the world, many became ill. The infectious spread took off like wildfire and has not stopped.


Researchers have used genetic codes to track the extensive spread of infections of COVID-19 tied to the Biogen conference, which have been found in 29 U.S. states, including Indiana, Florida, and North Carolina, and several countries, including Australia, Slovakia, and Sweden. Additionally, the majority of early cases connected to the conference arose in Massachusetts.


Research using genetic codes has determined that COVID-19 first arrived in Boston via a single introduction, and that the Biogen conference amplified it and resulted in a regional, national, and international spread of as many as 300,000 coronavirus infections.[2] It is also clear that the Biogen conference had a substantial impact on the speed of the transmission of COVID-19 and profoundly altered the course of the pandemic.


Was it proper for Biogen to hold an international business conference when the likelihood of a pandemic was increasingly clear? Other companies had canceled international meetings out of caution, but Biogen decided to hold its international business conference anyway.[3] The 175 executives who attended the conference were from various countries, and thus, were a highly mobile population. What is more, some of the 175 executives came from Italy – where officials had previously locked down more than a dozen towns in an effort to contain the coronavirus.[4] Why did Biogen – a cutting edge pharmaceutical company– not cancel the international business conference when a pandemic was looming? The expanse of COVID-19, and damages to many individuals as a result of this decision by Biogen looms large.


Biogen may face liability for its negligence in holding the international business conference in February 2020. Negligence is the failure to exercise the degree of care that a reasonable company would have exercised under similar circumstances. Under Massachusetts law, negligence consists of four elements: (1) a duty, (2) a breach of that duty, (3) damage to the plaintiff, and (4) a causal relationship between the breach of duty by the defendant and the damage claimed by the plaintiff.[5]­


At the time of the Biogen conference, other companies had canceled international meetings out of caution as countries began to lockdown.


It is clear that Biogen owed a duty of care, and that its international business conference caused as many as 300,000 people to become infected with COVID-19. What is less clear is what information Biogen had at the time it decided to hold the international business conference and how such information informed its decision. Further, it remains to be seen whether there was other relevant information that Biogen did not avail itself to that was readily available.


Lawson & Weitzen attorneys regularly represent individuals involved in complex personal injury matters and other civil litigation matters. If you or someone you know has contracted the coronavirus as a result of Biogen’s international conference, please do not hesitate to contact Brendan P. Slean or anyone on Lawson & Weitzen’s team of lawyers that represent individuals in personal injury actions.

[1] J. E. Lemieux et al., Phylogenetic Analysis of SARS-CoV-2 in Boston Highlights the Impact of Superspreading Events, Science10.1126/science.abe3261 (2020).


[2] Id.


[3] Michael Wines and Amy Harmon, What Happens When a Superspreader Event Keeps Spreading, N.Y. Times, (Dec. 11, 2020).


[4] Sarah Kaplan and Chris Mooney, Genetic data show how a single superspreading event sent coronavirus across Massachusetts — and the nation, Wash. Post, (Aug. 25, 2020, 9:50 AM).


[5] Bennett v. Eagle Brook Country Store, 408 Mass. 355, 358 (1990).