State senators in Missouri and Alabama advanced bills that would shield businesses and health care providers from lawsuits over alleged wrongdoing during the coronavirus pandemic.
Missouri senators on Wednesday gave initial approval to a liability shield measure after hours of debate and negotiations. The bill would prevent lawsuits against businesses unless someone can prove they were exposed there and sickened by the coronavirus and that the business was acting recklessly or committed willful misconduct.
Hospitals also would be shielded from lawsuits unless doctors commit “recklessness or willful misconduct,” which is a legal standard that’s more difficult to prove in court than the current liability standard they face.
The bill also would shield churches and other religious organizations from any lawsuits over exposure to COVID-19 unless the person who got sick can prove the organization committed intentional misconduct.
People hurt by defective masks or other virus-related products couldn’t sue unless they prove the manufacturer acted with recklessness or committed willful misconduct that injured them.
Lawsuits for potential COVID-19 exposure or poor products would have to be filed within two years after someone is injured.
Proponents said hospitals overrun with sick patients and manufacturers that stepped up to make masks shouldn’t be penalized for doing their best to help during a crisis.
“This bill ensures these businesses are protected, not punished, for their role in helping us weather this pandemic,” said bill sponsor Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, a Parkville Republican.
But bipartisan critics said the measure is aimed at helping big business owners and would hinder people’s access to the courts if they were hurt by poorly made masks or other pandemic-related issues.
“We’ve got to make sure that we not create any law that prohibits someone’s right to be heard in court,” said Republican Sen. Bill Eigel, of Weldon Spring.
The measure needs another vote of approval in the Senate to advance to the House
In Alabama, a Senate committee on Thursday swiftly approved legislation that would provide businesses and others protection from liability in coronavirus-related lawsuits, provided the entities were taking precautions to limit the spread of the virus.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey and GOP lawmakers had named the bill a priority for the first two weeks of the session. The bill passed without debate on a 27-1 vote. It now moves to the Alabama House of Representatives.
The bill by Republican Sen. Arthur Orr could provide immunity for businesses, health care providers and others from certain damages claimed by individuals who allege they contracted or were exposed to the virus.
Orr said Wednesday that the bill would give protection to companies, churches and other entities from virus-related claims only if they were following appropriate precautions.
“A business that chose to ignore that guidance and did not require, say like masks in their workplace or took no steps to try to limit the interaction of their workers being very close together, then they would not have protection in that safe harbor,” Orr said.
Robyn Hyden of Alabama Arise, an advocacy group for low-income people, urged the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday that to take more steps to protect and help workers.
“Front-line workers deserve access to health care, hazard pay and social support programs if they are unable to work in a high-risk field. Too many workers are being driven into risky working conditions with no alternatives,” Hyden said.
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