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Banking, insurance groups throw weight behind coronavirus liability shield bill

July 31, 2020. Print article

Hundreds of U.S. trade groups, including major banking and insurance organizations, declared their support for a controversial federal bill that would insulate firms from civil liability claims over failures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in workplaces.

“Our members and constituencies remain concerned that, despite doing their best to follow applicable government guidelines, they will be forced to defend against an onslaught of frivolous lawsuits,” the organizations wrote in a letter signed by more than 480 trade groups on Thursday. 

“Now is the time for Congress to take strong action and provide a national baseline of protection during this national pandemic to stop a growing wave of lawsuits from inhibiting our return to a robust economy and healthy citizenry,” said the groups, which included the and the .

Employers attempting to bring homebound workers back to offices are facing a quandary about what to do if a coronavirus outbreak occurs in the workplace, and whether they could face lawsuits. Already, about 70 lawsuits have been filed as of late July against companies including Walmart and Tyson Foods over claims that workers who fell ill or died from the disease were exposed on the job, the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday. 

The Republican-sponsored Safe to Work Act, which Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said must be included in any future coronavirus aid bill, would apply to suits from December 2019 through October 2024. The bill would give businesses and nonprofits near-immunity from coronavirus-related lawsuits except in cases of “gross negligence.” 

The measure would accomplish its goal by raising the burden of proof in lawsuits, lowering the amount of punitive damages that can be awarded to plaintiffs and transferring coronavirus-related suits from state to federal courts, which some legal experts argue are more favorable to defendants. 

The proposal would also allow firms to sue and collect damages from any individual who baselessly demands compensation from a business for coronavirus-related legal violations. 

“We’ll preserve accountability in the event of gross negligence or intentional misconduct,” McConnell said Monday. “But we are not going to let trial lawyers throw a party on the backs of the frontline workers and institutions who fought this new enemy on the front lines.” 

Thursday’s letter in support of the GOP-led proposal was also signed by the , the , America’s Health Insurance Plans, the , and the

Democrats and progressive groups have balked at the proposal. On Tuesday, Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that McConnell’s unwillingness to budge on the legislation means “he doesn’t really want to get an agreement,” HuffPost reported

Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois said on Thursday that the GOP legislation was “entirely one-sided in favor of corporations.”

“The McConnell immunity bill does nothing to protect workers, improve safety standards, or give businesses incentive to take proper precautions to reduce the spread of the coronavirus,” Durbin said. “In fact, it does the opposite — it views workers, customers and victims as the problem, and it sets high hurdles that would prevent meritorious coronavirus claims from having their day in court.”

On Friday, 141 organizations including the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, the National Employment Lawyers Association, the National Lawyers Guild, Human Rights Watch, and the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health signed a letter opposing the Safe to Work Act. 

“Establishing legal immunity for businesses that operate unsafely would do the opposite of instilling public confidence. Instead, it would introduce new anxieties to an already highly anxious public,” the groups wrote. “The potential for being held liable for harm caused by failure to take reasonable care is one of the most powerful incentives we have to ensure that businesses operate safely.” 

On Friday, The Washington Post reported that President Trump was willing to cut a coronavirus aid deal with Democrats that excluded the liability provision.