Congress Tries to Protect Employers From Lawsuits Tied to Coronavirus

May 13, 2020 by Tom Ramstack

WASHINGTON – Industry and legal experts told the U.S. Senate Tuesday that the coronavirus pandemic is creating liabilities that are not adequately addressed by existing laws and regulations.

As a result, business owners are running up against hundreds of lawsuits that are slowing the nation’s economic recovery.

Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, called the nearly 1,000 court claims filed so far this year “a tidal wave of lawsuits” during the hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The Senate is considering proposals for national standards to protect businesses from lawsuits by employees and customers during the pandemic.

Many business owners want to reopen but risk getting sued if their employees or customers are exposed to increased risk of infection and illness. Others say some of the lawsuits are attempts to get settlement money despite no proof of damages.

Meanwhile, unemployment has risen to the highest levels since the Great Depression of the 1930s and the nation’s economy is nosediving from widespread economic loss.

“We shouldn’t be punished for fulfilling our duty to stay open,” said Kevin Smartt, chief executive officer of Texas-based Kwik Chek Convenience Stores.

He agreed the health of employees and customers is important but added, “None of us could protect against every risk of infection.”

One proposal in Congress would exempt businesses from nearly all liability related to coronavirus.

A second more popular proposal would protect them from getting sued only if they meet standards of new workplace health and safety guidelines.

Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee agreed some kind of legal protection is needed to fully reopen the U.S. economy.

They recommended that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration jointly establish national coronavirus guidelines.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, said the guidelines need to be “specific COVID-related standards.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who chairs the Judiciary Committee, said the alternative to liability protection is likely to be further business failures.

“What I want to do is make sure we don’t have to go into bankruptcy any more than we have to,” Graham said.

However, a labor leader cautioned that extending the protection too far could create an incentive for employers to inadequately protect workers.

“We believe that would exacerbate some of the outlaw employers we have in this country,” said Marc Perrone, International President of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.

He added, “We must not provide a blanket of immunity that guarantees some of these workers would be taken advantage of.”

David Vladeck, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C., said Congress needed to avoid enacting an immunity from liability for employers that conflicts with state laws on the same issue.

“Legislation that simply displaces state liability laws is not only unprecedented it is probably unconstitutional,” Vladeck said.

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