The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and various other lobbyists for the nation’s largest companies have long sought legal immunity from a variety of negligence claims. Despite the carelessness and at times recklessness of these companies, it is their goal to avoid consequences for their actions entirely. While the notion of providing these companies with blanket legal immunity is not a new one, it has come to the forefront during the coronavirus pandemic.
As state and local governments, along with many companies, begin pushing to fully reopen the economy, the concerns over the potential consequences of these actions continue to grow. While there are businesses that are taking appropriate precautions to protect their employees and customers, others do little to keep the spread of the virus at bay. If the lobbyists get their way, people that contract the virus due to a company’s carelessness will be unable to seek compensation.
How Legal Immunity Works
The current push for legal immunity related to COVID-19 is intentionally broad. The goal of these lobbyists is almost complete immunity for the business community at large, particularly in cases where a company acted negligently.
For the most part, the lobbyists behind this push cite the risk of frivolous lawsuits bankrupting helpless small businesses every time a person gets sick with coronavirus. The reality of these claims is very different. The primary reason why immunity is unnecessary in this situation is that establishing a case for negligence is already difficult. The courts already have the tools to dismiss baseless claims while addressing real negligence fairly.
There is a high bar you must cross before you can recover compensation against a business owner after coming down with COVID-19. First, you must show that you contracted the virus from a specific place of business. This is a challenging proposition in some cases, especially if you have been in contact with many people and establishments. However, contact tracing is a viable tool to track down when, where, and how a person came down with COVID-19.
Even if you can prove you caught COVID-19 at a specific place of business, it does not guarantee a successful claim. The next step is establishing that the business owner’s negligence is responsible for your diagnosis. Negligence could come in a variety of forms. For example, a jury might find negligence if a business owner failed to provide reasonable distancing measures for its employees or patrons. The same could be true for any employer that allows workers previously in contact with the virus to return to work.
In the end, negligence is any intentional, careless, or reckless act that harms another person. If business owners fail to take the steps a reasonable person would have in their position, they could face accusations of negligence.
Establishing all of these factors is no simple task, which makes liability immunity unnecessary. Without a way to hold careless or reckless businesses accountable for their bad acts during a pandemic, their behavior will only worsen over time.
States Considering Legal Immunity
Notably, not all forms of immunity are the same. In fact, many states have provided legal immunity for the negligent acts of medical care professionals while attempting to combat the virus. These regulations exist as an incentive for doctors, nurses, and other health care providers to remain on the frontlines of the virus without fear of a lawsuit if they make a mistake.
The wisdom of that form of immunity is debatable, but it is far less egregious than the broad immunity that four states have enacted following the outbreak. These states varied their approaches. For example, one state passed a somewhat limited version that only applies to “essential businesses.” However, this designation covers a wide variety of businesses, from grocery markets to restaurants to hardware stores. While it prevents certain negligence claims, that state’s law does not impede workers’ compensation claims or criminal prosecutions.
The other three states that have enacted this type of legislation provide immunity to all businesses. Even then, the immunity is not entirely open-ended. However, one version of the law is especially broad. It is impossible to bring a negligence claim related to contracting COVID-19 against any business owner unless that owner committed a crime or failed to follow official safety guidance. This legislation also applies to product liability cases, which sets it apart from other states. To date, residents have not yet challenged this immunity in court.
In another state, all businesses enjoy immunity with very limited exceptions. A negligence claim against a business owner is only viable if a plaintiff can prove that the owner acted with willful misconduct or recklessly or intentionally caused harm. This is a high bar, as ordinary negligence cases will not lead to a viable legal claim under that state’s law.
Finally, the fourth state also provides immunity to any individual or business. As long as they can show that they acted in good faith while attempting to follow health guidelines, they are immune to claims of negligence. This approach covers the vast majority of businesses and provides a high bar for anyone seeking compensation for coronavirus-related negligence claims.
Other states are considering enacting similar legislation. Three of them are in the process of approving broad immunity measures that will hamper the public’s ability to pursue compensation for negligent acts. If passed, residents of these states will struggle to hold these companies accountable for their negligence. Other state legislatures are in the early stages of considering this type of immunity.
Reach out to Your Elected Representatives
As a citizen, you have the right and responsibility to speak out. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other interested parties have unlimited resources to push for legal immunity. Those resources pale in comparison to the power of an electorate unified in opposition to this legislation. Contact your elected representatives right away and let them know that the law must hold accountable employers that are negligent in protecting their workers from the potentially fatal coronavirus.