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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
HTML EMBED:
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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 are the details of President Joe Biden’s coronavirus relief plan?

The $1.9 trillion plan would aim to speed up the vaccine rollout and provide financial help to individuals, states and local governments and businesses. Called the “American Rescue Plan,” the legislative proposal would meet Biden’s goal of administering 100 million vaccines by the 100th day of his administration, while advancing his objective of reopening most schools by the spring. It would also include $1,400 checks for most Americans. Get the rest of the specifics here.

What kind of help can small businesses get right now?

A new round of Paycheck Protection Program loans recently became available for pandemic-ravaged businesses. These loans don’t have to be paid back if rules are met. Right now, loans are open for first-time applicants. And the application has to go through community banking organizations — no big banks, for now, at least. This rollout is designed to help business owners who couldn’t get a PPP loan before.

What does the hiring situation in the U.S. look like as we enter the new year?

New data on job openings and postings provide a glimpse of what to expect in the job market in the coming weeks and months. This time of year typically sees a spike in hiring and job-search activity, says Jill Chapman with Insperity, a recruiting services firm. But that kind of optimistic planning for the future isn’t really the vibe these days. Job postings have been lagging on the job search site Indeed. Listings were down about 11% in December compared to a year earlier.

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