COVID-19

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

Marielle Segarra Jul 28, 2020
Heard on: Marketplace
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A hostess provides hand sanitizer to customers at a Miami restaurant in early July. Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images
COVID-19

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

Marielle Segarra Jul 28, 2020
A hostess provides hand sanitizer to customers at a Miami restaurant in early July. Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images
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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.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What’s going on with extra COVID-19 unemployment benefits?

It’s been weeks since President Donald Trump signed an executive memorandum that was supposed to get the federal government back into the business of topping up unemployment benefits, to $400 a week. Few states, however, are currently paying even part of the benefit that the president promised. And, it looks like, in most states, the maximum additional benefit unemployment recipients will be able to get is $300.

What’s the latest on evictions?

For millions of Americans, things are looking grim. Unemployment is high, and pandemic eviction moratoriums have expired in states across the country. And as many people already know, eviction is something that can haunt a person’s life for years. For instance, getting evicted can make it hard to rent again. And that can lead to spiraling poverty.

Which retailers are requiring that people wear masks when shopping? And how are they enforcing those rules?

Walmart, Target, Lowe’s, CVS, Home Depot, Costco — they all have policies that say shoppers are required to wear a mask. When an employee confronts a customer who refuses, the interaction can spin out of control, so many of these retailers are telling their workers to not enforce these mandates. But, just having them will actually get more people to wear masks.

You can find answers to more questions on unemployment benefits and COVID-19 here.

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