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Coronavirus Liability Shield Vetoed by Pennsylvania Governor (1)

Nov. 30, 2020, 9:14 PM; Updated: Nov. 30, 2020, 11:56 PM

Pennsylvania won’t join more than a dozen states that have limited business exposure to lawsuits over Covid-19 after Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed legislation to shield companies from liability.

The legislation, H.B. 1737, would have set a higher legal bar for anyone looking to sue another person, business, or entity in Pennsylvania courts over coronavirus exposure. Such a lawsuit would fail unless the plaintiff could prove gross negligence or willful misconduct by the defendant.

Wolf, a Democrat, rejected the Republican-backed legislation on his final day for taking action on bills from the recently finished legislative session.

“Shielding entities from liability in such a broad fashion as provided under this bill invites the potential for carelessness and a disregard for public safety,” Wolf said in his veto message. “Furthermore, COVID-19 immunity protections need to be paired with worker protections, including paid sick leave for employees.” Wolf had provided narrower liability protections via executive order in May for health-care practitioners.

The state has recorded nearly 360,500 cases since the coronavirus pandemic began—6,707 of them reported on Nov. 28 alone—along with more than 10,300 deaths, according to Bloomberg News data. Hospitalizations have climbed there in the past month, with more than 4,500 beds now occupied.

Business groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have pushed for liability protections since the pandemic took hold of the nation beginning in March, arguing that the threat of widespread lawsuits would prevent businesses from reopening—a threat that opponents of liability shield laws have said is overstated.

Lawsuits have begun to ramp up in Pennsylvania and plaintiffs law firms are hiring trial lawyers to prepare for more activity, said Gene Barr, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry. Barr disputed Wolf’s claim that liability protections would encourage businesses to disregard safety protocols.

“In our view, it incentivizes everyone to adhere to these standards, because if you don’t then you don’t get these protections,” he said.

With no agreement in Congress on nationwide liability protection, more than a dozen states have enacted their own laws to limit liability related to Covid-19 exposure, including legislation that Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) signed into law Oct. 22.

Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah, and Wyoming also have enacted laws this year that broadly protect most or all businesses from Covid-19 liability claims. Additional states have provided protections through executive orders or legislation that applies more narrowly to specific industries such as health-care providers or suppliers of personal protective equipment.

Advocacy groups focused on worker rights and labor unions have opposed federal as well as state legislation to limit Covid-19 liability. A coalition of more than 100 groups told U.S. congressional leaders in an August letter that taking away legal accountability encourages businesses to operate unsafely.

Florida, Other States Teed Up

At least a handful more state legislatures are expected to consider limiting Covid-19 liability claims in the coming months—most notably Florida, which would be the largest state to enact a broadly applicable liability shield to date.

A coalition of business groups—including Associated Industries of Florida and the Florida Retail Federation—urged state lawmakers to consider Covid-19 liability limits as part of a broad package of pandemic recovery proposals. Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls (R) and Senate President Wilton Simpson (R) recently voiced their support for liability limits that would protect businesses that have followed proper health and safety protocols.

Sprowls told reporters in a Nov. 17 press conference he supports “making sure that businesses who are doing the right thing, who are trying to follow the latest science and the latest CDC guidelines are protected against a frivolous lawsuit.”

Florida’s next regular legislative session is set to begin March 2.

State lawmakers around the U.S. are hearing a similar refrain from chambers of commerce, including in Indiana, which could lead to liability shield bills in 2021.

Even sooner, Missouri lawmakers are expected to consider a liability protection proposal after Gov. Michael L. Parson expanded his call for the current special session to include the proposal.

(Updated with additional reporting throughout.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Chris Marr in Atlanta at cmarr@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com; Karl Hardy at khardy@bloomberglaw.com; Andrew Harris at aharris@bloomberglaw.com

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