ATLANTA – Georgia state senators want to give broad protections to businesses and others from being sued if someone blames them for contracting COVID-19.
House Bill 167 passed 31-19 on Tuesday and goes back to the House for more debate.
The bill came forward after Senate leaders spurned a narrower measure intended to be something of compromise between business groups and plaintiff lawyers. That other measure had moved through a Senate committee last week, but Republican leaders placed the business community’s preferred language into a different bill and pushed it forward.
“To ensure economic recovery, businesses need the assurance that when giving their best effort in dealing with the public to protect employees and the general public that they in turn will be protected from frivolous lawsuits. Not any lawsuit, not every lawsuit, but frivolous lawsuits,” said Senate Majority Leader John Kennedy, a Macon Republican.
Under the language approved Tuesday, a business, health care provider or protected entity would have to display “willful and wanton misconduct” or reckless or intentional infliction of harm to lose a lawsuit.
Kennedy argued that standard “is not a free pass” but others said it’s far too high. They noted that the earlier version also allowed someone to win a lawsuit if the business displayed gross negligence. Even that is higher than the regular standard of negligence.
“I think it goes too far in several respects,” said Sen. Jesse Stone, a Waynesboro Republican who unsuccessfully tried to amend the bill to go back to gross negligence. Stone said the misconduct required for a plaintiff to lose is “tantamount to injecting someone with COVID.” He also wanted the protections to expire instead of being in place permanently.
“This is in effect taking advantage of a temporary emergency to make broad, long-lasting changes,” Stone said.
Kennedy argued against the gross negligence standard.
“That sends the wrong signal,” Kennedy said. “It says, ‘Hey folks, you better get ready for the lawsuits.’”
The Georgia Chamber of Commerce and others have called for a lawsuit shield. Sen. Bill Heath, a Bremen Republican, questioned whether it was improper for the business group to distribute papers warning lawmakers that the bill would be a “scorecard” vote on which the chamber would grade lawmakers.
“I don’t know any way to define quid pro quo any better than that,” Heath said.
Gov. Brian Kemp already exempted hospitals and medical professionals from liability by executive order, but protections run out when Kemp’s emergency powers expire.