Law360's Tort Report: COVID-19 Biz Immunity Bills Floated

By Y. Peter Kang
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Law360 (January 11, 2021, 4:40 PM EST) -- Legislative efforts in multiple states regarding a liability shield for businesses in connection with coronavirus injuries and a $53 million settlement for catastrophically injured circus performers lead Law360's Tort Report, which compiles recent personal injury and medical malpractice news that may have flown under the radar.

State Lawmakers Seek To Limit COVID-19 Biz Liability

Lawmakers in Kentucky have floated a bill that would limit the liability of businesses during the coronavirus pandemic, one of a handful of states to have pushed forward with liability shield bills at the onset of new legislative sessions.

S.B. 5 was introduced in the Kentucky Senate on Jan. 5 and states that premises owners can't be held liable for injuries suffered by invitees during a declared health emergency such as a coronavirus pandemic. The bill defines premises owners as restaurants, retail shops, schools, churches, stadiums, gyms, medical facilities and long-term care facilities, among other entities.

The bill does not cover cases involving gross negligence or wanton, willful or malicious conduct. The proposed legislation was introduced amid a handful of other states floating similar bills.

Indiana lawmakers kicked off a new legislative session on Jan. 4 by introducing a bill that would provide a broad civil liability shield for businesses, premises owners and others in relation to COVID-19 exposure suits.

On Jan. 6, the Florida Legislature took the first steps toward shielding businesses from potentially frivolous injury lawsuits related to the COVID-19 pandemic, with bills that would set requirements for such pleadings and provide immunity for defendants who made good-faith prevention efforts.

The twin bills filed separately by GOP lawmakers in both houses are among the more highly anticipated efforts Florida lawmakers are expected to consider to address the health and economic challenges presented by the still-raging pandemic.

Legislators in Alaska, Montana and Nebraska have also introduced similar bills, according to news reports.

Wisconsin Pols Advance Virus Liability Bill, But Passage In Doubt

The Republican-controlled Wisconsin Assembly has approved a sweeping coronavirus relief bill that would provide a broad civil liability shield for businesses, schools and other entities in connection with virus exposure suits, but its passage is seen as unlikely given, among other things, a potential veto by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.

A.B. 1 was approved by the lower legislative house by a 56-34 vote on Jan. 7, according to legislative records. The bill provides a broad swath of entities and their employees a safe harbor from civil suits over damages related to coronavirus exposure so long as the alleged wrongdoing does not rise to the level of reckless or wanton conduct or intentional misconduct.

The proposed legislation, which would be retroactive to March 1, 2020, also states that noncompliance with federal, state and local health guidelines does not constitute reckless or wanton conduct for purposes of legal immunity.

But the bill, which contains dozens of other provisions related to coronavirus relief, is seen as unlikely to get past the GOP-controlled state Senate because of disagreements over the other relief provisions, not to mention Evers' indications that he would veto the bill if it ever crossed his desk, according to news reports.

The state has not adopted any coronavirus-related legislation since April, when Evers signed into law Wisconsin Act 185, which among other things provided a civil liability shield for health care providers, including nursing homes, for the duration of the state's health emergency and 60 days after its conclusion, according to the law's text.

Ringling Bros. Performers Ink $52.5 Million Deal Over 2014 Fall

Eight acrobats employed by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, who suffered catastrophic injuries after they fell during a circus performance at a Rhode Island arena in 2014, have reached a $52.5 million settlement, the performers' attorneys announced in December.

The suit filed by the acrobats in 2016 accuses the operator of the Dunkin' Donuts Center in Providence of having negligent safety standards that caused the rigging equipment holding the acrobats 20 feet above the floor to fail, which caused them to fall and suffer injuries.

Plaintiffs' counsel with Mandell Boisclair & Mandell Ltd. said the deal was reached after mediation proceedings that saw 20 expert witnesses deposed.

Case information was not immediately available.

Michigan Gov. Vetoes Health Care Provider Virus Liability Shield Bill

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has vetoed a bill that would have provided a five-month immunity window for health care providers in connection with coronavirus-related injury and death suits.

Whitmer rejected the proposed Pandemic Health Care Immunity Act on Dec. 30, which would've shielded medical professionals and health care facilities from civil liability from late October 2020 to mid-February 2021. Similar legislation signed into law by Whitmer expired in July, according to legislative records.

The Democratic governor said in her veto letter that the proposed legislation was unnecessary because the state, which has seen more than 13,000 COVID-19 deaths, "learned lessons" from the wave of cases it faced in the spring of 2020 and "now have a roadmap for treating this disease."

"When a COVID-19 patient receives substandard care, they should not be deprived of their day in court," said Whitmer. "Our frontline healthcare professionals are heroes, and they deserve our full support. … Immunity from liability, however, is no longer appropriate under the circumstances."

Arizona Gov. Extends Order Shielding Medical Providers From Virus Suits

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, has extended his executive order giving health care providers a legal safe harbor from coronavirus-related lawsuits.

The order extends to March 31 a previous directive that protects medical professionals and health care facilities from civil liability so long as they are acting in good faith and in response to the state's health emergency. Cases of gross negligence and willful or reckless misconduct are excluded.

"The extension of the 'Good Samaritan' order will help maintain staffing levels in our hospitals and ensure our medical professionals are protected when acting in good faith in emergency situations," Ducey said in a statement.

--Additional reporting by Nathan Hale. Editing by Emily Kokoll.

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