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COVID lawsuit protection

By M.D. Kittle 

Wisconsin Spotlight | Sept. 2, 2020 

MADISON — A bill introduced Tuesday would protect schools, businesses, homeowners and other Wisconsin entities from predatory lawsuits stemming from COVID-19. 

State Sen. Chris Kapenga’s legislation would give a “safe harbor” liability exemption to owners, lessees, occupants, or individuals in control of premises as long as they follow public health orders and make reasonable precautions to protect the public. 

“With many businesses struggling due to the impacts of COVID-19, the threat of a frivolous lawsuit is the last thing they need while trying to rebound,” the Delafield Republican said in a press release. “Most entities have adapted and taken precautions over the past six months to protect both their customers and employees. These businesses should not be living in constant fear of litigation for something that is beyond their control.” 

Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce and the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators have urged the Legislature to take up protections against wide-ranging pandemic lawsuits. 

The Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association and trial lawyers object. MTEA President Amy Mizialko told CBS58 in Milwaukee that businesses and school districts attempting to protect themselves from COVID-19-related lawsuits “should raise a giant red flag.” 

“If an employer forces workers to return to in-person work, where they come into close contact with other people during the worst pandemic in a century, they should be going to great lengths to provide them with assurances, not lobbying government to absolve themselves of responsibility,” the union chief told the news outlet. 

Several states have adopted new laws or orders offering some form of liability protection, including Connecticut, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Utah and Wyoming, according to Pew Charitable Trusts.  

New York recently rolled back some liability protections for hospitals and nursing homes, 

As the Associated Press reported last week, New York’s COVID-19 death toll, among the highest in the nation, could be a significant undercount. Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, under fire for his March state advisory directing nursing homes to accept patients with COVID-19, has refused to divulge the full number of deaths. 

Congressional Republicans have championed a provision in their expanded stimulus package that would provide COVID-19 liability protections against lawsuits in state courts until 2024. Gross negligence claims would be allowed to proceed.  

Kapenga said students around the state are beginning the year in virtual learning settings. Some districts have cancelled in-person education out of fear of being held liable for an increase of coronavirus cases. 

“This bill is needed to restore confidence, so our economy and our schools can return to a level of normalcy,” the senator said. 

“By introducing this legislation, Wisconsin can join a growing list of over a dozen states that have taken the commonsense step toward protecting against predatory lawsuits as a result of COVID-19.”

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