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New state law will shield businesses from COVID lawsuits

As a new surge of COVID cases overtakes Missouri, businesses, health care providers and houses of worship will soon be shielded from most COVID-related lawsuits under a bill Gov. Mike Parson signed Wednesday.

Senate Bill 51, sponsored by Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, R-Parkville, provides sweeping protections for businesses unless a high standard of proof can be met.

It was killed and revived in the last weeks of the legislative session and ultimately passed in the session’s final hour despite some lawmakers’ concerns about its scope.

The bill became the last remaining option to pass COVID liability protections — one of Parson’s top priorities for the session — after acrimony in the Senate led to a filibuster and early adjournment, ending any path forward for the more pared-down House version.

As he signed the bill from the state Capitol Wednesday, Parson said more than 200 businesses in the state “stepped up” and retooled their companies to respond to the pandemic.

“This is to protect those businesses,” Parson said. “The last thing we need to do is punish anybody for trying to help in the middle of a crisis or pandemic.”

Under the bill, plaintiffs would have up to one year to pursue a lawsuit against a health care provider, such as a nursing home or hospital, alleging medical malpractice and must prove harm occurred as a result of “recklessness or willful misconduct.”  An elective surgery delayed for good cause would not be considered “recklessness or willful misconduct,” according to the bill.

Plaintiffs would have up to two years in cases of product liability or after an alleged exposure, like claiming the virus was contracted on a business’s premises. Customers would also waive liability and assume the risk of potentially being exposed to the virus if they enter a building that has a warning notice posted.

Religious organizations, like churches, are also explicitly exempt from being held liable for alleged exposure of the virus unless the plaintiff “can prove intentional misconduct” and are not required to post a warning notice.

The specific exemptions for houses of worship were carved out in a nearly 15-hour debate and the Senate’s first filibuster of the session in February when Sen. Mike Moon, R-Ash Grove, attempted to grant them blanket immunity.

The bill also notes it does not prevent lawsuits for vaccine-related injuries, against shutdown orders issued by state or local governments or against educational institutions to recoup tuition, like in the instance of a school determining in-person classes wouldn’t be held after tuition was paid.

Hundreds of businesses and the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry supported the legislation, which they said was necessary to protect businesses and “close the door on these opportunistic lawsuits.”

But opponents, including the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys and AARP Missouri, argued it would protect bad actors and was a solution in search of a problem.

“We’re talking about a bill that would have given negligent nursing homes blanket immunity from liability lawsuits,” Rep. Wes Rogers, a Kansas City Democrat previously said of the bill. “And to me, that’s just sinister, frankly.”

According to the law firm Hunton Andrews Kurth’s “COVID-19 Complaint Tracker,” Missouri has seen about a little over 140 COVID-related complaints since the start of 2020. More than half have been insurance-related claims, such as coverage for small businesses; civil rights cases, such as a house of worship’s challenging regulations; or employment and labor disputes, such as a lack of sufficient protective equipment.

Backers of the legislation had been working for its passage since spring 2020, where previous protections failed to be passed that session. They faced another setback in December when Parson reversed course during a special session and asked lawmakers to take the bill up in January instead.

“We’ve seen a surge in the virus recently and so I actually think this legislation is going to become even more meaningful in the future,” Luetkemeyer said Wednesday, stressing he felt the bill would help ensure schools remain open for in-person learning.

The law goes into effect Aug. 28, and expires four years after it is in place.

This article by Tessa Weinberg is published by permission of The Missouri Independent.

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