GOP Seeks to Protect Businesses From COVID-Related Lawsuits

July 21, 2020 Updated: July 21, 2020

WASHINGTON—Lawmakers have less than two weeks to reach a deal on the next stimulus package but the two sides remain far apart on several issues, including providing a liability shield for businesses.

Companies demand protections against coronavirus-related lawsuits, as they worry about being sued if an employee or customer contracts the virus. Without such protection, Republicans fear many companies will be vulnerable to a wave of lawsuits and may go out of business.

President Donald Trump said he wanted to see certain liability protections for businesses in the next relief package.

“We do need protections because businesses are going to get sued just because somebody walked in. You don’t know where this virus comes from,” Trump said in an interview with “Fox News Sunday” anchor Chris Wallace on July 19.

“They’ll sit down at a restaurant; they’ll sue the restaurant, the guy’s out of business. So we do need some kind of immunity.”

Trump said Democrats have refused to provide liability protection to businesses “because they’re totally captured by the lobby of lawyers.”

“The lawyers’ lobby is probably the most powerful in the country.”

Liability protection was one of the key themes of the meeting Trump had with Republican leaders at the White House on July 20 to discuss the next COVID-19 relief bill.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) reiterated the need for liability protection, saying, “We don’t need an epidemic of lawsuits on the heels of the pandemic we’re already struggling with.”

Senate Republicans plan to unveil a new coronavirus bill soon and begin to negotiate with Democrats. Congress has less than two weeks to resolve differences on a legislative package.

McConnell earlier proposed a five-year liability shield retroactive to 2019 through 2024 to protect businesses, hospitals, and schools.

Ken Rusk, founder and president of Ohio-based Rusk Industries, a construction business, believes the next relief package “should include some protection against a likely range of lawsuits by aggressive law firms looking to cash in.”

The company rehired most workers who were furloughed during the lockdown. The business now operates with more than 200 employees.

“As a business owner, I’m always on the lookout for the next unintended consequence of running a large employee-intensive operation,” Rusk told The Epoch Times.

“You could almost liken it to carrying 200-plus employees in a large raft down a level 2 white water rapids river. You realize you are only so much in control of the raft as you focus on steering it safely downstream, trying to avoid the rocks, both seen and unseen.”

Rusk argues that the same holds true with the latest challenge of trying to navigate the coronavirus and its unintended costs.

David Reischer, an attorney from New York City, also thinks Congress should provide immunity to businesses in the next coronavirus relief package.

“The virus is a risk that is very difficult for an employer to fully protect against and it would be unfair and costly to hold businesses to a strict liability standard to guarantee protection from COVID-19 infection,” Reischer told The Epoch Times.

Some labor unions and employment lawyers, however, oppose expanding liability protections for companies, arguing that it would promote reckless behavior.

“So-called liability protection is another attempt by big business interest groups and politicians to take away accountability when people suffer harm,” Justin Effres, a personal injury attorney from California, told The Epoch Times.

“Accountability keeps people safe. Taking away the ability to sue is taking away accountability, and that is very dangerous.”

Several states, including Utah, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Wyoming, have enacted new liability shields to protect businesses.

While liability protection may let some businesses breathe easier, it’s very hard for plaintiffs to prove that they were exposed to the virus at the workplace, according to Damien Weinstein, a business and employment attorney from New York City.

“But, as many business owners know, defending against even meritless claims can still be costly,” he noted.

Democrats said they wouldn’t support liability protections and instead pushed for stronger rules for workplace safety.

In May, House Democrats passed a $3 trillion relief bill that would require the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to put in place an emergency standard to safeguard workers during the pandemic by requiring businesses to follow strict health guidelines.

“That is absolutely essential for us to have to protect our workers, at all times, but an even stronger one at the time of coronavirus,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters on July 16.

Pelosi said the “best protection for the employer is to protect the workers.”

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