Potential legislative special session could be affected by pandemic

By , Daily Memphian Updated: July 16, 2020 8:10 AM CT | Published: July 16, 2020 4:00 AM CT

Tennessee leaders are weighing the prospects for a special session to consider a COVID-19 liability immunity bill, potentially in the second week of August. But the coronavirus itself could throw a wrench into the affair.

One of the key factors in whether Gov. Bill Lee calls the Legislature in depends on whether leaders can forge an agreement beforehand. Otherwise, they risk bringing lawmakers from every section of the state together for days of debate and possible gridlock as the pandemic ramps up statewide.

House gives schools, businesses protection from COVID lawsuits

<strong>Gov. Bill Lee</strong>

Gov. Bill Lee

<strong>Randy McNally</strong>

Randy McNally

<strong>Antonio Parkinson</strong>

Antonio Parkinson

“With the virus spreading in such an uncontained way, there’s gonna be additional risk to any special session. It would be foolish to have a special session in this context unless members are willing to take even more significant precautions than when we met in June,” said Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, a Nashville Democrat.

Six people in the Legislature, up from two last week, have tested positive for the virus, according to Connie Ridley, director of Legislative Administration. Others have been asked to stay home to quarantine for 14 days.

Lawmakers will have to weigh those illnesses against the importance of the governor calling a special session and bringing lawmakers and staff together, especially since even more could test positive in four weeks.

And the longer the governor waits, the more difficult it could be to call the Legislature back to Nashville.

Yarbro and other Senate Democrats opposed the COVID-19 liability immunity bill during a truncated June session because it contained a retroactive provision making it more difficult for people to file lawsuits against businesses accused of causing them to catch the virus.

The Senate approved the bill with a retroactive clause dating to early March, but the House rejected amended legislation with an April 2 retroactive date and the bill fell apart in the early-morning hours of June 19 as the General Assembly adjourned.

Senate passes COVID liability protection for businesses, schools

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, who was highly irritated by the bill’s failure, and Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson spoke to the governor immediately after the session ended, lamenting the legislation’s failure.

Lee and McNally spokesman Adam Kleinheider said this week the matter of a special session remains under discussion and that nothing has been set.

Likewise, Doug Kufner, a spokesman for House Speaker Cameron Sexton, said discussions between Sexton, McNally and Lee are continuing, and dates and scope of a session call have not been finalized.

However, Sexton does not believe a special session should be limited to one issue, Kufner said.

Potential topics – if the governor calls a special session – include the COVID liability immunity bill, a telemedicine bill that still hasn’t found agreement between the House and Senate during the past two sessions, a look at the state emergency powers granted the governor and the Legislature’s role in those and legislation designed to punish people for vandalizing statues and monuments.

A statue of Edward Carmack, an early 20th-century legislator and newspaper editor who persecuted Black civil rights activist Ida B. Wells, was toppled during a June protest of the George Floyd killing. It’s not clear whether the legislation is designed to punish those who pulled down the Carmack figure.

House Majority Leader William Lamberth, a Portland Republican and attorney, opposed the COVID-19 liability immunity bill because of the retroactive provision. Several House members, as well as Yarbro, contended that part of the bill was unconstitutional.

Lamberth pointed out more than 20 people died at a Gallatin nursing home in his Sumner County district, and he didn’t want to circumvent family members trying to take legal action.

“I think it’s very healthy for us all to have conversations to determine how we could potentially put some legislation in place that would protect businesses from frivolous lawsuits but at the same time protect average, everyday Tennesseans’ ability to be able to bring a meritorious lawsuit against a business or individual who endangered them in some way that goes well beyond average, everyday exposure during a pandemic,” Lamberth said.

While legislative leaders such as Lamberth negotiate the details, other lawmakers are leery of returning to the Capitol.

State Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat, said he doesn’t like the legislation and isn’t enthused about the prospect of going to Nashville for a special session.

“I would hate for that bill to pass and then we’ve got all of these people dealing with these nursing homes. Those folks would scream bloody murder,” Parkinson said. “But what I think they’re going to try to do, I think they’re going to try to wait until after election, after primaries, and try to ram that ... through after folks have voted for these people.”

The primary is scheduled Aug. 7, with early voting to start Friday, July 17. The projected special session date being floated for consideration is Aug. 10.

Yarbro points out Tennessee residents are dealing with “overlapping” crises such as health care, school openings, unemployment and the economy and are not concerned about COVID immunity lawsuits.

“I am concerned that the narrow focus on a liability provision and potential legislation about statues demonstrates that the Legislature’s not focused on the things that actually matter to Tennesseans,” Yarbro said.

One COVID-19 lawsuit filed

Debbie Ann Bolton, the daughter of 89-year-old Ruth Summers, who died at Gallatin Center for Rehabilitation & Healing during a COVID-19 breakout there, filed a lawsuit July 8 against the center.

According to the filing, Summers told her daughter March 21 she wasn’t feeling well and was worried the center’s staff wasn’t taking her respiratory symptoms seriously.

Two days later, she was found lying on the floor between her wheelchair and bed. She was moved to another location in the center after her roommate tested positive for COVID-19.

On March 25, Summers was taken to Sumner Regional Medical Center. On March 29 she died from the coronavirus infection with no family present because she was in quarantine.

Her daughter claims the facility committed gross negligence that led to Summers’ death, according to the filing in Sumner County Circuit Court.

Andrew Sheeley, counsel for the Gallatin Center for Rehabilitation and Healing, issued a statement say the facility “strongly” denies the allegations and that the care Summers received was “timely and appropriate.”

“As we are all well aware at this point, the coronavirus outbreak has swept through senior living facilities across the globe killing thousands of at risk elderly people. As is abundantly clear, Gallatin Center is not the only skilled nursing facility impact by this tragic pandemic,” the statement says.

Sheeley pointed out Tennessee Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey said publicly the Gallatin Center’s response was “perfectly adequate” and that the state found “no deficient practices” after an investigation.

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Randy McNally Cameron Sexton Jeff Yarbro Antonio Parkinson William Lamberth
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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