INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - Indiana’s governor and legislative leaders are lining up in favor of giving a legal shield to businesses from COVID-19 lawsuits when the General Assembly returns to action next month.
Supporters argue the liability protection is needed for factories, stores, restaurants and other institutions like universities so that they can stay open without facing claims that an employee or customer over coronavirus exposure - even though they haven’t been able to point to any such lawsuits in the state, The (Fort Wayne) Journal Gazette reported.
“Are the odds that anyone would get sued super high? Probably not,” said state Sen. Mark Messmer, a Republican from Jasper. “But as long as people have a fear of a potential civil lawsuit it’s going to handcuff the state from ever moving back to some sort of normal.”
Messmer, who is preparing a liability shield bill, said lawsuits would still be allowed in cases of “willful misconduct” and “gross negligence.”
But Fred Schultz, a Bloomington attorney and president of the Indiana Trial Lawyers Association, said granting immunity encourages businesses to behave badly and maintains the proposal “is a solution in search of a problem.”
“The person doesn’t even know they have acquired the virus for days so how on earth do we prove it? That’s why there are no cases,” Schultz said. “It’s a pretty big ask to say I got it at this hardware store not at this grocery store.”
The call for the liability protections comes as the state health department reports Indiana averaging more than 70 coronavirus deaths a day since early December and the state’s hospitals treating four times more COVID-19 patients than they did when a surge in cases began in September.
Congressional Republicans have been pushing for a national legal shield, but most Democrats have opposed it. Lawmakers in at least 34 states have considered legislation related to legal liability, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures.
Labor and civil rights groups oppose any shield, which they say strips essential workers of potential legal recourse as they take risks during the pandemic.
Republican Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray of Martinsville said Indiana’s liability shield could clear the GOP-dominated Legislature in the opening weeks of the 2021 session.
“It’s an important way to help get our economy back and going, give people the confidence to get back out there both for businesses and even charitable organizations,” Bray said. “I think we’ll see that move through the Statehouse with some dispatch and quite a bit of success.”
Such quick legislative action is rare, as only one bill has advanced to Gov. Eric Holcomb’s desk during the first month of General Assembly’s session in his first four years as governor, according to his office’s online bill tracker.
Holcomb has endorsed the liability shield.
Kevin Brinegar, president of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, said no protections will be given if a business wasn’t following state and local regulations, such as requiring face masks and limiting occupancy.
“We can’t have employers, schools, health care facilities being sued and bombarded with lawsuits because someone was in their facility a week, two weeks ago, and has now contracted COVID and is claiming that they caught it at that facility,” Brinegar said.
House Democratic leader Phil GiaQuinta of Fort Wayne said any lawsuit protection should be “written tightly” so it only applies to COVID-19-related issues.
“Of course, we want to make sure that we are helping our small businesses and as well as holding those bad actors accountable,” GiaQuinta said.
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