Idaho Gives COVID-19 Civil Immunity To Businesses, Schools

By Y. Peter Kang
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Law360 (August 28, 2020, 7:24 PM EDT) -- Idaho Republican Gov. Brad Little has enacted a law that provides a broad civil liability shield for businesses and schools in connection with coronavirus-related injury and wrongful death suits.

Under the Coronavirus Limited Immunity Act signed into law by Little on Thursday, individuals, businesses, schools and churches can't be held liable for injuries or deaths related to COVID-19 exposure unless it can be established that a defendant committed willful or reckless misconduct. The novel coronavirus has killed 343 people in the Gem State as of Thursday, according to state figures.

Unlike similar laws in other states, cases involving gross negligence will also fall under the immunity umbrella. The law went into effect on Thursday and will expire on July 1, 2021.

HB 6 was quickly signed into law following a three-day special legislative session that was held earlier this week specifically to address the issue of a coronavirus liability shield.

"I want to thank the members of the Idaho Legislature for passionately carrying out their duties and performing this special legislative session," Little said in a Thursday statement. "Your work has helped ensure ... that businesses, schools, and churches responsibly operating during the pandemic are protected."

Although the bill easily passed both the Idaho Senate and House of Representatives, a vocal group of Democratic lawmakers expressed concerns with the proposed legislation.

House Democratic Leader Rep. Ilana Rubel said Wednesday that the bill uses "the heaviest hand of government to strip Idahoans of their right to redress for harm caused by even extreme negligence."

She criticized Republican lawmakers' claims that the state court system would be flooded with frivolous coronavirus-related lawsuits if businesses weren't given a safe harbor.

"We are now almost six months into the pandemic, there have been over 30,000 COVID cases in Idaho, and there has not been a single tort suit filed arising from COVID exposure," she said in a Wednesday statement. "All this bill will do is prevent genuinely meritorious lawsuits to protect victims of negligence, and send a message that a failure to take reasonable care will carry no accountability."

More than a dozen states have enacted a coronavirus liability shield for businesses.

On Aug. 17, Tennessee's Republican Gov. Bill Lee signed into law the Tennessee COVID-19 Recovery Act, which requires a plaintiff to prove, under a "clear and convincing" evidence standard, that a defendant's gross negligence or willful misconduct caused a person's coronavirus-related injury or death.

The bill also requires a plaintiff to file a certificate of merit from a medical expert essentially vouching for a claim.

Nevada Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak on Aug. 11 enacted a coronavirus business liability shield, which he touted as the "first in the nation" to provide protections for workers in the hospitality industry.

Nevada premises owners are protected for at least three years under the law, which notably excludes schools and health care facilities such as hospitals. The law also requires hotels and casinos in Las Vegas and Reno to institute cleaning and social distancing protocols, and mandates free testing of employees and paid time off for those who test positive and are in quarantine.

On Aug. 5, Georgia Republican Gov. Brian Kemp signed into law the COVID-19 Pandemic Business Safety Act, which shields businesses and health care providers but not for cases involving gross negligence or willful misconduct.

The law includes a provision stating that if a business owner posts a COVID-19 warning sign outside the premises that essentially acts as a liability waiver for virus injuries, then a plaintiff must overcome a rebuttable presumption that they assumed the risk of entering the premises. This additional legal hurdle is not required in cases of gross negligence, according to the act.

--Editing by Adam LoBelia.

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