Senate committee debates bill to protect businesses from COVID-19 lawsuits

(The Center Square) – Business groups on Wednesday spoke in support of a proposed bill that would give protection from lawsuits filed against businesses that reopen in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Senate Bill 308 is sponsored by state Sen. Matt Huffman, R-Lima.

According to Andrew Geisler, a legal fellow at The Buckeye Institute, in prepared testimony, the bill, if passed, “ensures that Ohio businesses taking reasonable precautions against the spread of COVID-19 can begin to reopen without fearing virus-related lawsuits and liability.”

Geisler added: “Lawsuits and the threat of lawsuits alleging virus exposure will further strain our dormant economy as it moves toward recovery.”

Geisler said without the protection from liability, many businesses might delay reopening “or spend significant resources to take reasonable precautions only to be sued despite their best efforts. Ohio should keep that from happening by adopting a ‘safe harbor’ rule that shields businesses and individuals adhering to recommended health and safety guidelines.”

The bill is pending before the Senate Judiciary Committee and is supported by various industries, including the hospitality sector.

“Our owners, operators and associates are understandably concerned about the threat of liability, even though they have always followed some of the strictest standards and protocols for cleaning and sanitization, and have taken steps to increase those practices in response to current challenges,” Joe Savarise, executive director of the Ohio Hotel & Lodging Association, said in prepared testimony.

“To allow our economy to recover, it will be critical to protect businesses from lawsuits related to the exposure of contraction of an illness in environments that are taking these responsible measures,” Savarise added.

Robert Wagoner, president of the Ohio Association for Justice, said while most businesses will adhere to guidelines, some may use immunity to act in an unsafe manner.

“The message we send to any business by providing them with immunity is ‘we want you to act safely, but we will not hold you responsible if you don’t,’” Wagoner said in prepared testimony.

“For those businesses conducting safe practices, immunity will place them at a competitive disadvantage to competitor businesses who are not acting safely,” Wagoner added. “What do we say to the businesses who are doing everything right when it comes to safe practices as they watch competitors cut safety corners to conduct business more productively at the expense of people’s safety? Why would we allow that?”
Cory Fleming, director of legislative and political affairs for the Ohio Credit Union League, also advocated for passing the bill. SB 308 “will extend helpful protections for those serving Ohioans during and after the pandemic, maintaining the focus on the state’s economic recovery efforts,” Fleming said.

“Costly and frivolous litigation is a serious threat to a provider’s ability to confidently and reliably offer necessary support, services and products,” Fleming said in prepared testimony.

“Senate Bill 308 aims to provide critical service providers additional cover from any civil damages associated with service delivery, during and 180 days after a state of emergency is lifted, while preserving civil recourse for those impacted by bad actors found in violation of state requirements,” Fleming said.

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