One State is Poised to Shield Businesses from Covid-19 Lawsuits

A florist remains closed in downtown Indianapolis, Friday, May 15, 2020.

A florist remains closed in downtown Indianapolis, Friday, May 15, 2020. Associated Press

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

Indiana legislators approved the measure on Monday, sending it to Gov. Eric Holcomb. Lawmakers in a number of states are weighing proposals to protect businesses from liability related to Covid-19.

Lawmakers in Indiana on Monday approved legislation to provide businesses with civil immunity from coronavirus-related lawsuits, sending the bill to Gov. Eric Holcomb who is likely to sign it.

The bill was approved 39-7 by the Senate on Monday and 72-21 by the House last week. It provides civil tort immunity against lawsuits claiming that a business or business owner is responsible for a customer being exposed to or catching Covid-19. It also provides immunity for manufacturers of personal protective equipment from lawsuits claiming “harm that results from the design, manufacture, labeling, sale, distribution or donation” of their products.

The legislation includes exceptions for cases of “gross negligence or willful or wanton misconduct.” Protections would extend to schools and government agencies. The bill also shields nursing homes, which critics say is problematic. There are still many unanswered questions about what has happened in the state’s nursing homes during the pandemic and opponents say that the legislation could keep family members from taking legal action to seek answers.

"What we're sending as a message to these people is that the interests of big business, and protectionist policies, override the rights of these individuals," state Rep. Terri Austin, a Democrat, said during debate in the House.

But supporters of the bill say it is necessary to ensure that businesses can reopen safely, without the threat of constant litigation.

“Many Indiana businesses, organizations and individuals have made significant sacrifices during the pandemic,” state Sen. Mark Messmer, a Republican and the bill’s lead sponsor, said in a statement. “Our goal with this legislation is to provide the reassurance and peace of mind organizations and businesses need to resume operations."

Holcomb, a Republican, has been a staunch advocate of Covid-19 protections for businesses and in July led a group of 21 Republican governors in asking Congress to enact similar legislation. 

But a federal proposal on the matter has failed to gain traction, leading lawmakers in a number of states to push ahead with their own legislation this year. Bills have advanced in Wisconsin, Montana and Florida, despite little evidence that Covid-19 litigation has had a wide impact on businesses.

Business groups remain in favor of the proposals. Kevin Brinegar, president and CEO of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement that the state’s bill came as “a great relief” to businesses.

“Hoosier businesses that follow accepted Covid-19 safety guidelines should not be subject to litigation that could devastate their companies—many of which are already struggling financially,” he said. “That’s why this bill is so important.”

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a staff correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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