Where people see common sense, Washington sees partisan drama — no surprises there. But a global pandemic isn’t the time to play politics. Unfortunately, some in Congress are doing just that when it comes to timely, temporary and targeted liability protections. Unless there is swift action, abusive lawsuits will overtake our economic recovery. Almost every entity in the country is grappling with how to reopen or stay open as safely as possible. The last thing they need to worry about is a crippling COVID-19-related lawsuit.
Across the country, signs of a litigation wave are everywhere. Plaintiffs’ lawyers are spending millions of dollars on advertising to recruit new clients so they can sue everyone from big box stores to fast-food restaurants to the local corner market. With a disease as widespread as COVID-19, it will be nearly impossible for a business, nonprofit organization, school, doctor or hospital to defend themselves against someone who claimed to catch the virus on their premises.
That’s why Congress must include the liability protections from Senator John Cornyn and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s “SAFE TO WORK Act” in its next coronavirus relief legislation. The bill provides timely, temporary and targeted liability protections to every business, school, hospital and nonprofit organization. The bill does not give them a free pass, but ensures entities that are working hard to follow the appropriate health guidelines don’t face an impossible choice: shut down again and risk bankruptcy or stay open and risk a crippling lawsuit.
The SAFE TO WORK Act would also protect our frontline health care workers and facilities from excessive litigation. These men and women have put their own lives at risk over the past few months fighting the virus on long shifts with little sleep; the least Congress can do is make sure they don’t need to worry about getting sued too.
The general public understands that liability protections are essential. A May poll by the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform showed that more than six in ten Americans across the political spectrum say Congress should extend liability protections to employers. The SAFE TO WORK Act is a commonsense solution that does just that.
If the public knows that liability protections are not and should not be a partisan issue, Congress should understand that, too. It has during past crises. When the Y2K changeover threatened to cause a wave of computer-related economic disruption, Congress passed temporary protections for companies that followed government recommendations for safeguarding their systems. After 9/11, Congress also passed the SAFETY Act to ensure the widespread availability of anti-terrorism products and services by preventing lawsuits against providers of government-qualified technology.
Don’t believe the critics who say liability protections will leave employers unaccountable for their actions. The SAFE TO WORK Act does not affect state workers’ compensation systems that compensate employees for injuries at work. The Act also includes exceptions for gross negligence or willful misconduct so that the truly bad actors can be held accountable in court. But we cannot wait for an onslaught of litigation to happen first. That is like leaving your umbrella at home when there is a storm in the forecast.
Without timely, temporary, and targeted liability protections, many organizations will make the rational choice to remain on the sidelines, postponing their return to economic activity until they are confident they won’t risk being sued out of business by opening their doors.
Harold Kim is the president of the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform.