Pa. Gov. Vetoes Expanded Coronavirus Liability Protections

By Matt Fair
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Law360 (November 30, 2020, 6:08 PM EST) -- Gov. Tom Wolf on Monday vetoed a controversial bill aimed at extending broad protections to nursing homes, hospitals and other Pennsylvania businesses from certain lawsuits over alleged coronavirus exposure, saying that the bill created a potential safety risk.

Wolf said that the bill, which passed out of the General Assembly by narrow margins earlier this month, went too far in shielding businesses from claims over their response to the pandemic.

"This legislation provides broad, overreaching immunity from civil liability during the current pandemic," Wolf said in a veto statement. "Shielding entities from liability in such a broad fashion as provided under this bill invites the potential for carelessness and a disregard for public safety."

House Bill 1737 would have prevented 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.

As written, the bill would have extended protections to nursing homes, hospitals and other health care facilities, child care centers and schools, and other business allowed to continue operating through the state of emergency Wolf has declared as a result of the pandemic.

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 he faced criticism from business and industry groups for failing to extend similar protections to health care facilities, nursing homes and other entities.

Wolf expanded on that order last week, agreeing to extend liability protections to businesses, including restaurant owners and employees, related to their enforcement of the state's mask mandate.

The state has seen a handful of lawsuits — including several against grocery chain Giant Eagle Inc. — challenging their policy of requiring customers to wear face masks with no exceptions.

The sweeping provisions vetoed on Monday were added to a bill in the Pennsylvania Senate earlier this month that was originally introduced prior to the pandemic to limit potential environmental liability faced by government land banks involved in redeveloping contaminated properties.

The push for the amendments was spearheaded by Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, who serves as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

She said at the time that 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."

Only a handful of lawsuits have been filed so far in Pennsylvania over allegations related to COVID-19 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 passed away after contracting the coronavirus.

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

While Wolf said that the broad protections outlined in the bill created a potential public safety risk as businesses could potentially shirk recommended safety measures, the Pennsylvania Coalition for Civil Justice Reform, a major advocate for an expanded liability shield, noted that the bill wouldn't have protected entities who fail to follow public health guidelines.

"One must wonder if the governor even read the bill he vetoed," PCCJR executive director Curt Schroder said. "[The bill] only extends liability protection to those businesses, schools, colleges and universities, childcare centers, and health facilities that do comply with health orders and government standards. They would receive no protection under the bill unless they complied with health orders. It is difficult to understand what the governor finds objectionable in a bill that meets the criteria he has set forth."

In a joint statement, Pennsylvania Association for Justice president Paul Lagnese and Philadelphia Trial Lawyers Association president Dan Jeck praised the governor's decision to veto the bill.

"HB1737 was nothing more than a grotesque effort by massive corporations, manufacturers, hospitals, and nursing homes to shield themselves from liability when their negligent actions cause injury or death," they said. "The priorities in a pandemic should always be about protecting Pennsylvanians, but what we saw instead was a hastily passed bill that would have been a gift to businesses and hospitals engaging in bad conduct that harmed workers and families."

--Editing by Steven Edelstone.

Update: This story has been updated to include a statement from the heads of the Pennsylvania Association for Justice and the Philadelphia Trial Lawyers Association.

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