Senators discuss protecting Missouri business from COVID-19 liability

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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – With the pandemic still front and center around the world, some lawmakers in Missouri want to protect businesses, schools, and churches from lawsuits over COVID-19.

Governor Mike Parson asked lawmakers during a special session in November to pass legislation shielding businesses from lawsuits regarding coronavirus, but it failed to move through the process. Now, with session in full swing, Senators are resuming discussion on the topic, but not all agree liability protection is needed.

Two senators have, in total, filed three pieces of legislation for the 2021 legislative session for COVID liability protection. Proposals from senators Tony Luetkemeyer (R-Kansas City) and Bill White (R-Joplin) would protect businesses making products in response to a health emergency, such as the pandemic.

“Missourians want to get back to work, that’s a fact,” said Marcella Povis, a witness who spoke against the measures. “Everyone wants to get back to normal, but how can we if this is still there?”

A spokesperson from the Missouri Chamber of Commerce told the hearing room Tuesday, “Fifteen-percent of businesses are expected to close permanently because of COVID, and half of employers are expected to have layoffs.”

Besides the virus itself, Luetkemeyer and White are concerned with the lawsuits some businesses, churches, schools and even health care companies could face.

“We’ve already started seeing legal advertisements and lawsuits filed against business owners for their alleged responsibility for someone contracting COVID-19,” Luetkemeyer, sponsor of Senate Bill 51 and 52, said.

White’s measure, Senate Bill 42, would protect businesses as long as they are following guidelines.

“Now, any restaurant owner can be sued for premises liability, exposure, product liability,” White said. “Right now, everybody can be sued. We have reasonable efforts by following a guideline. Now, that guideline is not a specific guideline, it’s not a mandate.”

St. Louis Democratic Senator Karla May asked White who gets to decide if a business is following guidelines. He responded by saying it would be up to the courts.

“As you’re all aware, there are guidelines that are out there for the CDC, state and local health officials,” White said.

White used St. Louis County Executive Dr. Sam Page as an example.

“If you didn’t follow Sam Page’s guidelines, but you followed the CDC guidelines, then you’re protected regardless of what Sam Page did for this liability,” White said.

Long-term care facilities say the protection is needed.

“We won’t have nursing homes in the state of Missouri if we don’t get some protection, period,” said Missouri Health Care Association spokeswoman Nikki Strong said. “Liability insurance is not accessible to use anymore.”

Those against the legislation, like Povis, a former small business owner, said it won’t help small businesses.

“It does not allow small businesses to be okay with what’s happening,” Povis said. “It does not allow for individuals to be okay, but it provides big businesses, those that can forward to stay in business, to follow whatever guidelines, they can do that.”

According to the Ken Barnes with the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys, there have been around 120 lawsuits filed in reference to COVID-19.

“I can’t find a single solitary one that would cover businesses that would be a case involved with what is intended to be covered by this bill,” Barnes said. “It’s just not an epidemic of lawsuits.”

Barnes said the largest portion of the lawsuits are small businesses pursuing business interruption cases with insurers.

Twenty-one other states have already passed something similar to COVID liability. Members did not pass the legislation out of the committee to the Senate floor.

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