Tennessee businesses would get protection from liability claims related to Covid-19 for the next two years, under legislation going to Gov. Bill Lee for his signature.
The state’s House and Senate on Wednesday passed legislation (HB 8001 / SB 8002) to bar claims against any person, business, health-care provider, nonprofit, religious group, or government entity related to Covid-19 exposure, testing, or medical treatment. Anyone filing a virus-related liability lawsuit would have to overcome several legal hurdles, including showing the defendant’s actions amounted to gross negligence or willful misconduct.
The Republican governor is expected to sign the bill. He called the legislature into a special session with the Covid-19 liability limit as his top agenda item. The Senate passed it by a vote of 27-4 and the House 80-10.
If the bill becomes law, Tennessee would join at least 10 other states in providing Covid-19 liability protections broadly for most or all businesses—Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wyoming. Additional states have enacted liability shields via executive order or narrower liability protections covering health-care providers and suppliers of personal protective equipment.
A federal proposal to limit Covid-19 liability nationwide is pending in the U.S. Senate but faces opposition from House Democratic leaders, as part of broader disagreement over a next round of virus relief and economic stimulus legislation.
The federal legislation goes beyond liability claims to also give employers safe harbor from pandemic-related claims under a number of employment laws.
Tennessee’s legislation addresses “issues around liability protections for businesses, that protection against frivolous lawsuits, at the same time providing protections for individuals in cases of willful misconduct or gross negligence. We can accomplish both of those,” Lee told reporters Tuesday in anticipation of lawmakers’ votes to pass the bill.
The state’s liability limits would apply to claims beginning on Aug. 3 and extend through July 1, 2022. Lawmakers debated whether the retroactive protection to Aug. 3 would be allowed under the state’s constitution.
In addition to the “gross negligence” legal bar, the Tennessee bill would require a plaintiff to get a doctor’s signed statement that the doctor believes the defendant’s actions led to the plaintiff’s injury, loss, or death related to Covid-19.
The bill doesn’t change Tennessee worker’s compensation law, which largely preempts employees from suing their employers in court over on-the-job injuries.
Democratic lawmakers who opposed the bill said its extensive legal hurdles would shield even businesses that operate recklessly from being held liable for the sickness or death of customers or employees.
“If this becomes law, there is virtually no circumstance in which a person can bring a successful Covid-based lawsuit no matter how irresponsible the person who infected them was, because no doctor will ever be able to state with certainty that a defendant’s actions caused plaintiff’s injuries,” state Sen. Sara Kyle (D) said during Senate floor debate on Wednesday.
“The bill will embolden people who have not been taking this pandemic seriously to do even less. It will increase the spread of Covid at a time when we need to be doing more to stop it,” Kyle said.
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