Senate passes COVID liability protection for businesses, schools

By , Daily Memphian Updated: June 17, 2020 9:20 AM CT | Published: June 12, 2020 6:43 PM CT

Attempting to stop a potential wave of COVID-19 lawsuits, the Senate passed legislation this week granting greater liability protection for businesses and schools as the Tennessee economy reopens.

Critics of the legislation, though, say it goes too far by “raising the bar” too high for workers or students to prove they put themselves at risk and contracted the virus on the job or at school.

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<strong>State Sen.&nbsp;<br />Sara Kyle</strong>

State Sen. 
Sara Kyle

Memphis Democratic state Sen. Sara Kyle pointed out Tennessee already has tort laws that provide protections for businesses, and those are “the most difficult cases,” only one step below death penalty cases.

“The issue to me is making it difficult for people to go to court. This could set a precedent,” Kyle said.

Under the legislation, businesses, nursing homes, hospitals and schools would not be liable for “damages, injury or death” stemming from COVID-19 cases unless a plaintiff could prove “gross negligence or willful misconduct” that caused them to catch the virus.

The claimant would bear the burden of showing harm by their employer or school and would be required to obtain a statement from a COVID-19 expert showing they caught the virus at work or school because of neglect.

House gives schools, businesses protection from COVID lawsuits

“It will protect Tennesseans from unwarranted claims that may arise from the pandemic and give them confidence to again begin restoring our state to where we all expected it to be,” said state Sen. Mike Bell, a Riceville Republican who carried the legislation.

Bell contended employers who take “reasonable workplace practices should not be liable” and face a storm of COVID-19-related lawsuits. They will be required to follow any government recommendations for COVID-19 protocol.

The legislation would be effective dating back to March 5, the day the first COVID-19 case in Tennessee was reported, until July 1, 2022.

Senate Bill 2381 passed 26-0 with four Democrats passing on the vote.

<strong>State Sen.&nbsp;<br />Raumesh Akbari</strong>

State Sen. 
Raumesh Akbari

State Sen. Raumesh Akbari, a Memphis Democrat, raised questions about the measure, saying she received complaints from workers at a major company in Shelby County where employees weren’t wearing masks and one wound up getting sick and dying.

“My only concern is on behalf of the workers,” Akbari said.

Democrats also argued against making the law retroactive to March 5.

But they were outnumbered in the Republican-controlled chamber where Lt. Gov. Randy McNally spoke in favor of the legislation.

State Sen. John Stevens, a Huntingdon Republican, argued public schools and businesses are “afraid to open” because of the fear they won’t be able to completely shield students, employees and customers from COVID-19.

“The litigation costs alone could sink many businesses,” Stevens said.

He contended only cases that show solid evidence of liability “on the front end” should be taken by the courts to avoid “unnecessary” litigation.

The legislation does not affect the state’s workers’ compensation laws.

The House is schedule to consider its version of the bill Monday, June 15.

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Sara Kyle Mike Bell Raumesh Akbari John Stevens
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter with more than 30 years of journalism experience as a writer, editor and columnist covering the state Legislature and Tennessee politics for The Daily Memphian.


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