GOP state lawmakers file coronavirus legal immunity legislation

Two bills that would protect individuals and businesses from COVID-19-related lawsuits have been introduced in the Republican-controlled Indiana General Assembly.

Coronavirus immunity legislation is a top priority this year for GOP lawmakers and business organizations. It is also on Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb’s legislative agenda.

The business owners’ concern is that someone who was in a grocery store, for example, could test positive for COVID-19 days later and try to sue that store to pay medical expenses—even though the business required masks and there’s no proof where the person contracted the virus.

Companies say defending against such suits would be a costly burden, even if they were baseless and ultimately dismissed.

Senate Bill 1, authored by Republicans Mark Messmer of Jasper, Eric Koch of Bedford and Liz Brown of Fort Wayne, would shield businesses and individuals from coronavirus civil liability lawsuits unless it acted with gross negligence or willful or wanton misconduct that could be proven with “clear and convincing evidence.”

The bill would specifically protect individuals, associations, institutions, corporations, companies, trusts, limited liability companies, partnerships, political subdivisions, government entities and “any other organization or entity.”

“Many Hoosier businesses, especially small businesses, are already struggling because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and these costly accusations could very well put a reputable company out of business,” Messmer said in a statement. “I don’t anticipate a large number of cases like this, but it’s important we prepare and protect factories, local shops, restaurants, houses of worship and other organizations so Hoosiers can maintain their jobs and our economy can continue to recover.”

SB 1 would not affect workers compensation claims.

The legislation would be retroactive to March 1 and in effect through Dec. 31, 2024.

House Bill 1002, authored by Republican Jerry Torr of Carmel, is similar to the Senate version, but it goes a step further and would also shield businesses that produced pandemic-related materials, such as personal protective equipment.

It also specifically includes health care providers as a protected entity.

Like the Senate version, the House legislation would not protect any person or entity whose actions would be considered gross negligence or willful misconduct.

The House bill defines a protected entity as an individual, corporation, health care provider, an approved post-secondary educational institution, political subdivision, limited liability company, partnership, other legal entity or any business or organization referenced in a list elsewhere in state code.

The House bill has a shorter effective period—being retroactive to March 1 and in effect through Jan. 1, 2022.

Also, under the House version, a person who has filed a COVID-19 civil liability lawsuit would need to have a signed statement from a doctor that supports the claim that the business or entity being sued is at fault.

The bill says the physician statement needs to say the exposure or contraction of COVID-19 that resulted in damage, injury or death was “caused by an alleged act or omission of the defendant.”

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