Pa. House OKs Virus Liability Protection Measure

By Matt Fair
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Law360 (April 7, 2021, 4:32 PM EDT) -- In its second attempt to pass a broad COVID-19 liability shield following a gubernatorial veto in December, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives gave its blessing on Tuesday to a bill that would protect a broad swath of businesses from claims related to exposure to the coronavirus.

House Bill 605, which passed the General Assembly's lower chamber by a 107-to-94 vote, would protect businesses, health care facilities, nursing homes and schools from lawsuits alleging COVID-19 exposure absent claims of gross negligence or intentional misconduct.

"Businesses that did their best to provide our communities with safe ways to get essential goods and followed the necessary precautions should not have to worry about the threat of costly litigation," said bill sponsor Rep. Torren Ecker, R-Cumberland. "Furthermore, my bill does not protect any sort of criminal act or reckless, knowing or intentional misconduct."

In addition to providing a liability shield for businesses and other entities, the measure would also require compulsory arbitration of virus-related claims before a three-member panel.

"This is a commonsense approach that won't tie up our legal system, hamper business growth and stifle our economy even more," Ecker said.

The bill represents the second attempt by the Republican-controlled state legislature to pass a COVID-19 liability shield following an executive order from Gov. Tom Wolf in May 2020 that provided only limited protection to individual health care practitioners.

While that order protected doctors, nurses and other providers from claims related to their treatment of coronavirus patients, the governor faced criticism from business and industry groups for failing to extend similar protections to health care facilities, nursing homes and other entities.

Wolf ultimately expanded on that order in November as he agreed to extend liability protections to businesses, including restaurant owners and employees, related to their enforcement of the state's mask mandate.

Legislators, meanwhile, passed a broader liability shield in November — House Bill 1737 — that Wolf, a Democrat, went on to veto with a statement calling the measure "overreaching."

With a new legislative session underway in January, however, Republicans are trying their luck once again.

And on its second time through the House, the concept managed to pick up a few additional supporters after H.B. 1737 passed in November by a narrower 104-to-98 vote.

In a statement, Ecker spokesman Gregory Gross said he believed that Republicans would be able to work with the Wolf administration to resolve any outstanding concerns over the measure.

"The previous version of the bill was approved late in the session last year, leaving little time to hash out any differences with the governor's office," he said. "There was broad support last time and the belief was it would become law. With that said, Ecker is seeking to work out a compromise ... with the governor's office so it does become law."

The bill now moves to the Pennsylvania Senate for consideration.

--Editing by Alyssa Miller.

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