GOP relief bill would shield companies from COVID-19-related lawsuits

Posted July 28th, 2020.

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Marielle Segarra

As businesses reopen in a pandemic, they’re faced with this reality: Even if they take precautions like requiring masks and social distancing, and providing hand sanitizer, “it still may not stop somebody from contracting coronavirus from somebody else that may be at their place of business,” said Andrea Sager, a small business attorney who owns her own firm.

That could mean an expensive lawsuit and even the demise of a business, she said.

Enter the GOP’s latest relief package. There is a set of provisions in it that would shield businesses from coronavirus-related lawsuits brought by customers or workers for incidents that happen over the next five years.

There are some exceptions in the bill.

“If you’re grossly negligent or you intentionally engage in harmful behavior, if you are acting that way, you’re not going to be protected, and you shouldn’t be,” Sager said.

The thing is, “gross negligence” — that’s one of the terms from the bill — is a really high legal bar.

“It doesn’t just mean you were sloppy or careless,” said David Super, who teaches law at Georgetown University. “Grossly negligent is sort of the equivalent of drunk driving in the wrong direction on an interstate.”

Lawyers for workers or customers would also have to prove that a business was not making “reasonable efforts” to comply with local COVID-19 safety rules.

Deborah Marcuse, an employment attorney who represents workers at Sanford Heisler Sharp, said all of this would send a message to companies “that taking risks with the lives of workers and customers won’t harm their bottom line.”

“That’s an incredibly dangerous message to send during a pandemic,” she said.

Even though there’s been a lot of debate about the liability proposal so far, there haven’t been that many COVID-19-related personal injury lawsuits against businesses. A very small percentage of coronavirus lawsuits fall into that category, according to the law firm Hunton Andrews Kurth.

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