Ind. Gov. Signs Law Shielding Businesses From Virus Liability

By Lauren Berg
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Law360 (February 18, 2021, 7:22 PM EST) -- Indiana became the latest state to enact a coronavirus liability shield for businesses and schools on Thursday as Gov. Eric J. Holcomb signed the new immunity bill into law.

Indiana's S.B. 1 protects businesses, schools, emergency workers, health care providers, government entities and other groups from lawsuits alleging they are responsible for coronavirus injuries to workers, students, customers or others on their property.

The coronavirus liability bill, which was authored by Republican Sens. Mark Messmer, Eric Koch and Liz Brown, initially passed the state Senate on Jan. 28 by a vote of 40 to 8 and the House on Feb. 11 by a vote of 72 to 21. The final amended version passed the Senate by 39 to 7, according to the legislative record.

Gov. Holcomb signed the new bill Thursday, noting the pandemic has severely affected Hoosier businesses, schools and other groups and that he wants to make sure people don't have to live and work in fear of frivolous lawsuits.

"Most Hoosier businesses and other organizations are making good faith attempts to protect their customers and employees because it is the right thing to do and it makes for better business in the long run," Holcomb said in a statement. "I want to thank lawmakers for rapidly passing this key piece of legislation and sending it to my desk for signature."

The bill also protects manufacturers of personal protective equipment from liability if someone wearing the PPE still contracts COVID-19. But it doesn't protect someone whose actions are grossly negligent or fraudulent, according to the bill's language.

Democratic Sens. Jean D. Breaux, J.D. Ford, Tim Lanane, Eddie D. Melton, Fady Qaddoura, Greg Taylor and Shelli Yoder opposed the bill, according to the legislative record.

Taylor, the minority leader in the state Senate, said in a statement to Law360 on Friday that he opposed the bill because the final version protects nursing homes but not its residents and their families. He said the Republican supermajority took out language that would have required nursing homes' duty of care to be unaffected by the bill.

"While many facilities were dedicated to caring for our loved ones, it's imperative that in instances of neglect, families have a path for legal action," Taylor said. "This bill was originally meant to protect our small businesses and even their employees who have been greatly affected by this pandemic. I'm disappointed we couldn't do this while also protecting vulnerable Hoosiers."

The other lawmakers did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

In a separate statement Friday, Messmer, R-Jasper, said he was grateful for the new law.

"Many individuals, businesses, churches and others went above and beyond to protect Hoosiers during the pandemic," Messmer said. "This law will help give those organizations peace of mind, ensuring they will not face a frivolous and potentially financially crippling lawsuit."

Indiana isn't the only state to enact a coronavirus liability shield.

Last week, GOP Gov. Kay Ivey signed a law protecting Alabama's businesses, churches, schools, health care providers, government entities and other groups from lawsuits alleging they are responsible for the spread of COVID-19 among workers, students or customers.

And Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, in September signed into law H.B. 606, which mandates that individuals, businesses, schools and health care providers can't be held liable for injuries or deaths related to COVID-19 exposure unless it can be established that a defendant committed reckless conduct, intentional misconduct, or willful or wanton misconduct.

In August, Republican Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia enacted the COVID-19 Pandemic Business Safety Act, which shields businesses and health care providers but doesn't cover cases involving gross negligence or willful misconduct. State legislators this year are expected to extend those protections, which are due to expire in July.

And the Pennsylvania Legislature recently passed similar legislation, but it was vetoed in November by Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, who said the bill created a potential safety risk and went too far in shielding businesses from coronavirus-related claims.

--Additional reporting by Y. Peter Kang, Rosie Manins and Matt Fair. Editing by Philip Shea.

Update: This story has been updated with comments from legislators.

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