Officials estimate that 1 million people in Florida are infected with COVID-19 in the wake of the 2020 Thanksgiving holiday weekend. Meanwhile, state legislators are meeting with business lobbyists at a conference, which includes a golf tournament at the Orlando Ritz-Carlton, to discuss legislation that could prohibit consumers from suing businesses that negligently exposed them to COVID-19.
One of the sponsors of the event is Publix. The Florida-based, employee-owned chain of grocery stores throughout the Southeast is facing a lawsuit filed by the family of Gerardo Gutierrez, who worked behind a deli counter at the company's Miami Beach store. The lawsuit alleges that Gutierrez, who was 70 years old, asked to wear a mask at work when the pandemic began, but the company wouldn't let him. He contracted COVID-19 from a coworker and died in April.
Publix then changed its policy to allow masks and gloves. A report in April by the Tampa Bay Times described the company's slow response to the pandemic compared to other grocery store chains. A spokesperson told the paper that Publix has been "keenly focused on intensive, ongoing protective measures in all our stores." The Gutierrez family's lawsuit said the company "chose to protect sales over the health and well-being of its employees and customers."
With the lawsuit pending, Publix is co-sponsoring this week's Associated Industries of Florida conference with lobbyists and legislators, all Republicans except for newly-elected Democratic Rep. Christine Hunschofsky, former mayor of Parkland. Lawmakers will discuss their priorities for the 2021 legislative session.
Republican legislative leaders have discussed plans to introduce a bill next year to limit lawsuits over COVID-19 exposure. Senate President Wilton Simpson, for example, suggested that legislators consider legal immunity for companies that follow CDC guidelines. House Speaker Chris Sprowls said their intent is to ensure people "don't get blindsided by a frivolous lawsuit, while making sure that if somebody is doing the wrong thing, that they're still held accountable."
Simpson said the bill shouldn't include "a blanket statement that no one would have any liability associated with COVID." He also rejected a proposal from the RESET Task Force, an alliance of industry groups, to grant blanket immunity from COVID-19 lawsuits for "essential businesses" like grocery stores, which stayed open when others shut down in the early months of the pandemic.
The head of Florida's Chamber of Commerce argued legal immunity is necessary because Florida has the "fifth worst legal climate in the United States." He was presumably referring to a biannual survey of corporate lawyers and executives conducted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Institute for Legal Reform, which spends millions of dollars lobbying for legislation to limit lawsuits by injured workers and consumers.
In an editorial opposing immunity, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel argued that "campaign contributions and high-power lobbying leave [the legislature] perpetually predisposed to make life easier for employers and harder for workers."
Although Simpson said he "cannot imagine that we are going to let people off the hook for negligence," the immunity laws passed by Southern states all prohibit COVID-19 lawsuits based on negligence, the normal legal standard, while allowing lawsuits for gross negligence, intentional harm, or another higher standard.
The enacted bills are temporary, with the expiration tied to the governor's declaration of a public health emergency. But the emergency shows no signs of abating in Southern states, where many hospitals are overflowing with COVID-19 patients. Thousands of meatpacking workers in the rural South have also contracted the virus.
If Florida passes an immunity bill, it would join states around the country that have passed bills that keep people who get COVID-19 from suing their health care providers, "essential businesses," or government entities.
Governors and legislators from both parties have signed on to bills that prohibit lawsuits against negligent businesses or health care providers. As Facing South reported, the Republican-led North Carolina legislature unanimously passed a COVID-19 relief bill in May that included legal immunity for essential businesses. The legislature, with just 13 Democrats voting no, then broadened immunity from COVID-19 suits to cover any individual, corporation, or other "legal entity."
Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper signed both bills into law. And in Louisiana, Democratic governor John Bel Edwards signed a bill that immunized restaurants and other businesses from lawsuits. Republican governors in Alabama, Arkansas, and other Southern states have issued executive orders giving certain businesses immunity. And many of them have called on Congress to pass a federal immunity bill.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and other Republicans have been insisting that any further COVID-19 stimulus bill, which could include more stimulus checks and aid for desperate state and local governments, also include legal immunity.
McConnell's proposal would override every state's laws for holding businesses accountable for injuries to their workers or customers. Nearly every personal injury lawsuit in the U.S., even many cases filed in federal court, are now governed by state law. That's how it has worked since America's founding. But the Republican-led U.S. Senate wants to change that to keep businesses from getting sued when people contract COVID-19.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats have generally opposed immunity. Pelosi recently said that she doesn't support McConnell's proposal but thinks "there is a balance that can be struck." Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat, said legal immunity would allow corporations to "expose their workers to COVID without repercussions."