Congress sent the president a $900 billion pandemic relief bill this week that includes $600 checks for millions of Americans, more targeted assistance for small businesses and expanded unemployment to help people who remain jobless as the country fights the virus.
But the bill did not include qualified immunity to protect businesses from frivolous coronavirus-related lawsuits. That’s unfortunate.
We see qualified immunity—with an emphasis on qualified—as an important part of the nation’s economic recovery.
So we are pleased that Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb and Republican legislative leaders say that passing a state law to protect businesses will be one of their top priorities for their 2021 session.
The goal is to ensure that companies and other organizations that have made efforts to comply with COVID-19 safety guidelines can’t be held responsible if a customer or employee claims he or she caught the virus while visiting or working at that store, office or other location.
The goal should not be to protect bad actors. Companies that do not enforce the state’s mask mandate, that encourage sick employees to come to work or don’t accommodate social distancing should not be protected from lawsuits.
Immunity laws passed in other states—and there are dozens of them—generally do not provide immunity if a person or entity acted with negligence, recklessness or willful misconduct.
IBJ reporter Lindsey Erdody wrote in a front-page story last week that Indiana lawmakers are likely to include similar language in their bills—and hope to have something on the governor’s desk to sign early in the session.
They acknowledge that immunity legislation would not prevent anyone from suing a business or organization, but that it could deter individuals from doing so because the chance of the suit’s success would be so low.
The proposals have support from business organizations.
“Everyone agrees this is serious, and you need to do the right thing,” Indiana Restaurant and Lodging Association CEO Patrick Tamm told Erdody. “But if you’re doing the right thing, then you shouldn’t be subject to frivolous lawsuits.”
We agree. And Hoosiers appear to agree as well. Ball State’s 2020 Hoosier Survey found 80% to 86% of Hoosiers favor shielding businesses from liability for virus spread, depending on the specific proposal.
The survey found higher support for protecting grocery stores and pharmacies that remained opened during the pandemic than it did for protecting restaurants and other businesses that closed and then were allowed to reopen.
But not everyone is on board. Brett Voorhies, president of the Indiana State AFL-CIO, said his organization is opposed to a state immunity law that doesn’t protect workers. “It’s giving a get-out-of-jail-free card for the bad actors,” Voorhies said.
We understand Voorhies’ concerns. Lawmakers must find a way to ensure that employees who have been recklessly put in harm’s way by their employers can hold those employers accountable.
We’re confident the Indiana General Assembly can strike the balance and expect Holcomb to make sure they do.•
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