BERLIN – An Austrian federal court said Thursday that the state can’t be held liable for a COVID-19 infection from an outbreak at an Alpine ski resort as the pandemic hit Europe in early 2020.
The Supreme Court of Justice announced its verdict in a long-running legal battle involving a German resident who traveled to Ischgl on March 7, 2020 and visited several apres-ski venues before returning home six days later. He experienced the first coronavirus symptoms shortly afterward.
The plaintiff sought damages and a ruling that the Austrian federal government was liable for harm to him resulting directly or indirectly from authorities' errors or failings connected to the “mismanagement” of COVID-19 in Tyrol province in late February and early March 2020.
The outbreak in Ischgl, a popular resort in western Austria, was considered one of Europe’s earliest “super-spreader” events of the pandemic.
An independent commission concluded in late 2020 that authorities in Tyrol acted too slowly to shut down ski resorts after it became clear they were dealing with one of Europe’s first coronavirus outbreaks. But the panel didn’t find evidence that political or business pressure played a role in the decision.
The federal court found that the regional government gave incorrect information in a March 5, 2020 statement suggesting that Icelandic passengers who had flown from Munich to Reykjavik and then tested positive were infected on the plane rather than in Tyrol. In fact, the court said in its May 15 verdict, authorities had already had an indication that at least one man developed symptoms before flying home.
However, it said that incorrect information would be a grounds for liability only if it created a “basis of trust" that would induce people to make faulty decisions. That wasn't the case because the statement in question was formulated vaguely and in the subjunctive, noting that the evaluation was based on initial information and further clarification was in progress, the court found.
It also upheld lower courts' findings that authorities' obligations under anti-epidemic laws were designed “exclusively to protect the general public.”
The legal director of Austria’s Consumer Protection Association, Peter Kolba, said the verdict was “a deep disappointment” for people from 45 countries, some of whom he said “suffered severe damage because of the mistakes of authorities in Tyrol.”
He said in a statement that the association would examine the court's decision carefully and consider further action for damages against the Austrian state.