COVID-19

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

Marielle Segarra Jul 28, 2020
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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
Heard on:
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

Millions of Americans are unemployed, but businesses say they are having trouble hiring. Why?

This economic crisis is unusual compared to traditional recessions, according to Daniel Zhao, senior economist with Glassdoor. “Many workers are still sitting out of the labor force because of health concerns or child care needs, and that makes it tough to find workers regardless of what you’re doing with wages or benefits,” Zhao said. “An extra dollar an hour isn’t going to make a cashier with preexisting conditions feel that it’s safe to return to work.” This can be seen in the restaurant industry: Some workers have quit or are reluctant to apply because of COVID-19 concerns, low pay, meager benefits and the stress that comes with a fast-paced, demanding job. Restaurants have been willing to offer signing bonuses and temporary wage increases. One McDonald’s is even paying people $50 just to interview.

Could waiving patents increase the global supply of COVID-19 vaccines?

India and South Africa have introduced a proposal to temporarily suspend patents on COVID-19 vaccines. Backers of the plan say it would increase the supply of vaccines around the world by allowing more countries to produce them. Skeptics say it’s not that simple. There’s now enough supply in the U.S that any adult who wants a shot should be able to get one soon. That reality is years away for most other countries. More than 100 countries have backed the proposal to temporarily waive COVID-19 vaccine patents. The U.S isn’t one of them, but the White House has said it’s considering the idea.

Can businesses deny you entry if you don’t have a vaccine passport?

As more Americans get vaccinated against COVID-19 and the economy continues reopening, some businesses are requiring proof of vaccination to enter their premises. The concept of a vaccine passport has raised ethical questions about data privacy and potential discrimination against the unvaccinated. However, legal experts say businesses have the right to deny entrance to those who can’t show proof.

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