MADISON — The Assembly takes up a bill today that includes protections for businesses, schools and governments from frivolous COVID-19 lawsuits.
Last week, the Senate passed the bill with bipartisan support (27-3).
The measure does not safeguard entities against egregious safety violations. It does prevent litigation chasers from suing over COVID-19 cases that did not result from willful action of the employer or nonprofit.
Trial lawyers hate the civil liability exemptions. They assert workers will be the ones who are hurt, but the attorneys have a vested interest in protecting the windfall of legal settlements that could come from the civil litigation.
Here’s why business advocates and others say the liability shields are so important:
- Flood of lawsuits
“Businesses should be very concerned about these cases,” labor and employment attorney Tom Gies of Cowell & Moring, a law firm that defends employers, told Reuters last year.
Cory Fish, general counsel for Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state’s largest business advocate, said the flood of frivolous lawsuits already has been unleashed nationwide. The litigation path generally leads to settlements, with businesses hoping to avoid expensive legal battles.
“And so an entity may very well be going to settle for some sum of money even if they know they did nothing wrong because they don’t want the reputational damage, they don’t want to pay the legal fees, they don’t want to deal with the psychological and emotional stress that a lawsuit brings,” Fish said.
In 2020, more $23 million was spent by plaintiffs’ firms on COVID-19-related lawsuit advertisements, “a clear indication that an influx of litigation is coming,” according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The organization and its members nationwide are urging congress to deliver liability protections.
- Struggling to survive
A COVID-19 lawsuit could deliver a death blow to a business on the brink of closure. After nearly a year of government lockdowns, local restrictions and COVID fear, too many employers are just hanging on. The last thing they need is to be forced to defend themselves from a frivolous lawsuit. Many small businesses don’t have the resources to combat expensive litigation.
- Back to business
Without civil liability protections, economic experts say, businesses will continue to be saddled with anxiety about opening, reopening, and expanding. Employees will suffer, the economy will suffer and so will local, state and federal revenue.
Gov. Tony Evers calls his $91 billion biennial budget proposal the Badger Bounceback. Businesses can’t bounce back living under the constant threat of COVID-19 lawsuits.
“COVID-19 and the government’s restrictions devastated business, and many are still facing challenges today,” said Scott Manley, WMC Executive Vice President of Government Relations. “These businesses need COVID-19 liability protections to ensure we can focus on restarting the Wisconsin economy, and not on padding the pockets of greedy trial lawyers.”