The Indiana Senate on Thursday passed legislation that would give businesses, not-for-profits, schools and religious institutions immunity from COVID-19 civil liability lawsuits.
Senate Bill 1, authored by Republican Sen. Mark Messmer of Jasper, would shield businesses and individuals from coronavirus civil liability lawsuits unless there was gross negligence or willful or wanton misconduct that could be proven with “clear and convincing evidence.”
The Senate approved the bill 40-8. Only Democrats voted against it.
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.”
It would also shield businesses that produce pandemic-related materials, such as personal protective equipment, and provide immunity for medical providers who were required to delay non-emergency procedures at several points throughout the year due to executive orders from Gov. Eric Holcomb.
It would not affect worker’s compensation claims.
The legislation would be retroactive to March 1 and in effect through Dec. 31, 2024.
Business organizations have made the legislation a top priority, citing concerns of potential lawsuits from individuals who could claim they caught COVID-19 while working for or patronizing that business. For example, someone who was at a restaurant could test positive for COVID-19 days later and try to sue that establishment to pay medical expenses.
Companies say defending against such suits—even if they are baseless—would be a costly burden.
The Indiana AFL-CIO is opposed to the bill. And some Democrats have raised concerns about whether nursing home residents would be allowed to file lawsuits, because the bill would provide protection to those facilities.
Sen. Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, also questioned how legitimate the threat of lawsuits actually is for businesses before voting against the bill.
“Are we really protecting the small businesses, the not-for-profits, the educational institutions?” Lanane said. “Or are we protecting insurance companies in this case?”
Messmer argued the threat is real.
“Anyone who thinks we don’t live in a litigious society isn’t paying close attention these days,” Messmer said. “We won’t get back to normal as long as this looming cloud of uncertainty hangs over our society.”
SB 1 is similar to House Bill 1002, which could be voted on in the House on Monday.