Legislators seek to ban lawsuits by workers who get COVID-19 on the job

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, is drafting a bill that would temporarily prohibit COVID-19-related lawsuits against businesses that comply with government standards. (Official U.S. Senate portrait.)

Lawmakers at the state and federal level are trying to keep some workers from suing their employers if they get COVID-19 on the job. Congress is considering another bill responding to the pandemic, and Senate Republicans are insisting that it give businesses some type of temporary legal immunity. 

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky warned of "years of endless lawsuits" over illnesses or injuries sustained as businesses reopen, and he insists that any future bills responding to the pandemic include immunity for businesses. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the biggest lobby for business interests, proposed temporary immunity from many types of claims, including those filed by corporate shareholders. 

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, has drafted a so-called "safe harbor" measure that would bar lawsuits against businesses that complied with government standards. Earlier this month, the Trump administration blocked guidelines for reopening businesses from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention in Atlanta because the rules were too strict. Many states have rules in place to protect workers or customers, but regulation is less strict in Southern states.

President Donald Trump has already given special immunity to meatpacking companies through an executive order. Thousands of meatpackers across the U.S. have gotten COVID-19, and in the South, the communities around those plants have experienced more outbreaks.

The bill drafted by House Democrats does not include immunity. Democratic leaders opposed the idea because it would keep customers or workers who contract COVID-19 from holding businesses accountable in court if the business is negligent. House Republicans plan to introduce a bill that would prohibit lawsuits by workers against businesses that comply with federal standards. 

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who recently donated $18 million to the Democratic Party after his brief presidential campaign, penned an op-ed supporting the idea of a safe harbor. Bloomberg argues that lawsuits from workers and customers "could impose a significant economic cost, create persistent uncertainty for businesses, impede needed investment and potentially cause production bottlenecks in industries that are essential to the country's recovery.

Supporters of limiting claims against businesses often point to what they call "frivolous lawsuits." But in most states, when a worker or customer sues a business for negligence, a jury would decide if it acted like a reasonable business. And Sally Greenberg of the National Consumers League points out that compliance with the government standards is already a "safe harbor" against many types of lawsuits. 

Mary K. Henry of the Service Employees International Union said that it's "an outrage that employers and corporations are seeking to skirt their responsibility when workers on the frontlines of this crisis don't have what they need."

ALEC leads push in states

At the state level, the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council is pushing a reopen agenda that includes what it calls "lawsuit reform." In states across the South, legislators are passing bills or issuing executive orders to prohibit litigation against some businesses.

A Republican legislator in Florida is drafting a bill that would immunize businesses from any virus-related claims, unless the business showed a "reckless disregard for human life" — a much higher standard than negligence. When Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) lifted his orders shutting down non-essential businesses, he included guidelines for reopened businesses to follow. Some businesses interpreted the order as providing immunity from lawsuits if they followed Kemp's guidelines. 

The North Carolina legislature, which has been bitterly divided along party lines, voted unanimously on May 2 to grant broad, temporary immunity to "essential businesses" as part of a broader COVID-19 bill. The law prohibits any lawsuits against essential businesses "from any customer or employee for any injuries or death alleged to have been caused [by] the customer or employee contracting COVID-19." It doesn't apply if there's "gross negligence, reckless misconduct," or intentional harm. 

The Chamber of Commerce and its allies have long pushed for limits on lawsuits by injured workers and consumers. In the 1980s, the "tort reform" movement was launched by tobacco and pharmaceutical companies that were facing lawsuits over their dangerous, sometimes deadly, products. A 1986 tobacco company memo laid out a long-term plan to spread propaganda about the dangers of too much litigation. 

The effort was massively successful. Most states have already passed laws that limit jury verdicts, limits that impact the plaintiffs with the most severe injuries. Nine of the 13 Southern states place limits on the amount of non-economic damages that juries can assess. But tort reform groups continue to push for more limits and criticize courts that don't rule for corporate defendants. 

Legal immunity means that corporations cannot be held accountable for not taking reasonable steps to protect their employees or customers. In many states where regulatory oversight is lacking, litigation fills the gap by holding corporate wrongdoers accountable and encouraging safe practices for workers and consumers.