Pa. Lawmakers OK Expanded COVID-19 Liability Protections

By Matt Fair
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Law360 (November 20, 2020, 7:05 PM EST) -- Pennsylvania lawmakers gave final approval Friday to a bill providing expanded liability protection to health care facilities, nursing homes, schools and other businesses for claims related to coronavirus exposure.

The sweeping coronavirus-related provisions were added Thursday to a bill in the Pennsylvania Senate that was originally introduced last year to limit potential environmental liability faced by government land banks involved in redeveloping contaminated properties.

House Bill 1737 passed the Senate by a 29-20 margin Thursday, before the House of Representatives concurred with the amendments 104-98 Friday.

Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, the chair of the Senate Judicial Committee and author of key parts of the amendments adopted as part of the bill, said the expanded liability protections were needed to protect businesses already struggling as a result of the newly resurgent pandemic.

"When I talk to struggling business owners and nonprofit organizations, they express fear that one lawsuit could be their death sentence," Baker said in a statement. "Those fighting to stay open do not need to incur litigation costs and potentially get hit with judgments on top of all the other pressures and stresses afflicting them."

Industry lobbyists have been pressuring lawmakers for pandemic-related liability relief since Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf inked an executive order in May that shielded individual doctors, nurses and other providers from claims related to their treatment of coronavirus patients, but failed to extend similar protections to health care facilities and nursing homes.

While lawmakers introduced a string of new proposals aimed at expanding immunity for businesses, health care providers and other entities that continue to operate amid the pandemic, the protections were ultimately lumped into an unrelated bill Thursday.

The bill would prevent a broad range of businesses from facing civil liability for "actual or alleged exposure to COVID-19" when good faith efforts were taken to comply with public health guidelines.

The law would not apply to instances of gross negligence, recklessness or willful misconduct on the part of potential defendants.

A spokesperson for Wolf did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday on whether he will sign the measure.

Curt Schroder, the head of the Pennsylvania Coalition for Civil Justice Reform and a major advocate for the expanded liability protections, praised the measure and urged Wolf to sign it.

"The bill provides targeted and temporary relief from the unique threats of liability posed by the COVID pandemic," he said. "Health care, businesses, schools, colleges and universities, child care centers and local governments need the protection provided in H.B. 1737. This bill requires that they follow health guidelines in order to merit liability protection and will not protect bad actors."

Paul Lagnese, an attorney with Berger & Lagnese LLC who currently serves as president of the Pennsylvania Association for Justice, slammed the bill as a corporate giveaway in a statement to Law360.

"Sadly, in the middle of a terrible pandemic, corporate America pressured the General Assembly into passing an 11th hour piece of legislation that prohibits Pennsylvanians from  obtaining justice when a business or hospital's negligence leads to the transmission of COVID," he said. "We encourage our governor to veto this harmful legislation."

Only a handful of lawsuits have been filed so far in Pennsylvania over allegations related to coronavirus exposure, including two cases brought against a Pittsburgh-area nursing home on behalf of a group of residents, 10 of whom ultimately died from the disease, and a housekeeping staffer who also died from the disease.

Another suit filed in May alleged that unsafe working conditions at a JBS SA meatpacking plant outside Philadelphia resulted in a union steward contracting and ultimately dying of COVID-19.

--Additional reporting by Matthew Santoni and Y. Peter Kang. Editing by Stephen Berg.

Update: This story has been updated to include a comment from the Pennsylvania Association for Justice.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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