WASHINGTON D.C. — Small businesses getting ready to reopen say they’re worried about lawsuits from employees and customers who may become ill, and they say Congress should create liability protection to prevent those kinds of suits.
Republicans, backed by the White House, and business owners say the goal of liability protections would be to shield companies that are following the rules.
“We should not be punished with unfair lawsuits just because we kept our doors open,” Kevin Smartt, who owns Texas-based Kwik Chek Convenience Stores, testified at a Tuesday Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on federal guidelines to deal with the matter.
But Democrats and labor advocates say loosening liability would leave already vulnerable front-line workers in greater danger.
“Immunity laws could send dangerous messages that the safety of these workers is not a company’s responsibility,” Anthony Perrone, of United Food and Commercial Workers International, said.
Republicans said they’re concerned about adding more pressure to already struggling businesses. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, wondering about the difficulty of proving exposure didn’t happen at a business. Smartt said it would be very difficult.
“Even with our best efforts, it is not possible for us to guarantee that no customer or employee will get sick,” he said.
Democrats argue fears of sweeping liability lawsuits are unfounded.
“Only nine lawsuits have been filed,” Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., pointed out. “Whether they’re frivolous or serious, [that] does not suggest a tidal wave of lawsuits.”
He argued Congress should be focusing on establishing stronger protections for workers.
“I wish this hearing was entitled, ‘Why has our government failed to produce science-based standards of worker safety,’” he said.
Perrone said the workers’ union supports “strong, uniform standards,” saying more than 160 employees at meat processing plants have died of coronavirus. He said the federal government must do more to help.