Georgia businesses seeking protections from coronavirus lawsuits

937 Salon & Spa Owner Esther Laveck, left, colors the hair of Kirsten Debord while stylist Torie Hitchcock wipes down equipment. MARSHALL GORBYSTAFF
937 Salon & Spa Owner Esther Laveck, left, colors the hair of Kirsten Debord while stylist Torie Hitchcock wipes down equipment. MARSHALL GORBYSTAFF

Legislature expected to consider liability bill next month

Business groups are dialing up the pressure on state lawmakers to advance legislation that would shield companies from legal liability if workers or customers contract COVID-19.

Details are sketchy since bill text is still being drafted, but the concept has the preliminary support of several key Republican officials and is likely to be a focus when the Legislature reconvenes next month. The debate is likely to draw some of the state’s most influential political interests to the Georgia Capitol.

At the heart of the matter is whether businesses that have reopened and are following guidelines for social distancing, disinfecting workspaces and personal protective equipment should be protected from personal injury lawsuits if a person is exposed to the coronavirus onsite.

Some labor leaders, trial lawyers and Democrats fear legislation could undermine key protections and allow businesses to do whatever they like with few legal ramifications — potentially long after the pandemic ends.

“We don’t think blanket immunity is a responsible, appropriate thing,” said Gainesville attorney Jonathan Pope, president-elect of the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association. “There needs to be a remedy for people who have a legal claim against a business that’s not acting safely and responsibly.”

Proponents of the idea, including Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and Attorney General Chris Carr, say businesses that are doing all they can to follow safety rules should not face the threat of frivolous lawsuits. They’re pushing for an approach that includes safeguards in the case of gross negligence.

"It is important for us to open back up, to allow businesses to hire people, make things and provide services," said Carr, who recently authored a letter to Congress urging federal action on the issue with his counterparts from 20 other states. "There's enough disincentives and headwinds that are out there — we don't need to create more."

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston (left), Attorney General Chris Carr (center), and Lieutenant Governor Geoff Duncan (right) greet President Donald Trump after he arrived at Dobbins Air Reserve Base on Nov. 8, 2019. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Georgia House Speaker David Ralston (left), Attorney General Chris Carr (center), and Lieutenant Governor Geoff Duncan (right) greet President Donald Trump after he arrived at Dobbins Air Reserve Base on Nov. 8, 2019. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Charlie Flemming, president of the AFL-CIO Georgia, one of the state’s most powerful unions, said legislators need to be thinking about frontline workers, many of whom earn low wages and can’t afford to leave their jobs or stay home.

“To say that they should be forced to go (to work) without having something to help them if they feel they’re in an unsafe environment is crazy,” said Flemming. “Workers need rights too.”

The Georgia Chamber, the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, Georgians for Lawsuit Reform and the state chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business are urging lawmakers to act when the General Assembly reconvenes in mid-June rather than waiting for the new session in January.

Timing will be extremely tight. There are only 11 workdays remaining in the 2020 session, and legislators will be consumed with gut-wrenching decisions over the state budget and new social distancing guidelines that will limit the number of lawmakers in the House and Senate chambers at any given time. It’s possible lawmakers choose to adjourn even sooner.

Mistrust surrounding a separate but related overhaul of state tort laws could make the political lift surrounding COVID liability even heavier since many of the same parties are involved. A sweeping torts package that had the support of Senate GOP leadership collapsed in committee earlier this spring.

Supporters point to surveys like one recently conducted by the NFIB that found 68% of Georgia small business owners were concerned about lawsuits related to the pandemic.

That includes Vince Thompson, owner of the Buckhead marketing company MELT, who worries about bringing clients and roughly 100 employees back to the office and someone getting sick.

“I don’t want to put myself in a position of being sued,” said Thompson. “To me, short of a vaccine and a treatment, it is absolutely issue 1-A.”

Brad Usry, owner of Fat Man’s Hospitality Group, reopened his Augusta-area restaurants shortly after Gov. Brian Kemp allowed for in-person dining. Usry installed a plexiglass barrier at front registers, hand washing and sanitizing spaces and positioned tables six feet apart.

“I do think good-quality businesses right now are certainly taking their patrons and their customers’ safety to a degree that warrants (legal) protection,” said Usry.

Chuck Deskins, owner of Guys and Dolls Family Salon in Tipp City, dries the the hair of Candy Schlieper. MARSHALL GORBYSTAFF
Chuck Deskins, owner of Guys and Dolls Family Salon in Tipp City, dries the the hair of Candy Schlieper. MARSHALL GORBYSTAFF

More than a dozen other states are considering liability legislation. In Washington, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and the White House are pushing for a federal-level effort. McConnell has warned of an "avalanche" of coronavirus lawsuits being filed without some sort of legislation.

A raft of litigation has yet to materialize in Georgia, business groups and trial attorneys acknowledge, but all are closely watching liability suits filed against corporate giants such as Amazon, McDonalds and Walmart in other states to see if they succeed.

The coronavirus’ fast spread and high number of asymptomatic cases could make it harder for a person to prove in court where and when they contracted the virus. That uncertainty, however, could also leave businesses vulnerable to suits.

A recent survey conducted by a trio of research and public affairs firms found 36% of workers would be very likely to take legal action against their employers if they caught COVID-19 on the job.

In the meantime, Kemp has taken some unilateral steps using the emergency powers the Legislature granted him earlier this spring.

In April, the governor signed an executive order limiting the legal liability for hospitals, medical personnel and other so-called "auxiliary emergency management workers" to provide them immunity from personal injury lawsuits.

Some have questioned Kemp’s legal authority to do so, but even his supporters believe those protections are only valid until his emergency powers expire on July 12, which is why they’re urging the Legislature to act.

A Kemp spokesman said the governor is considering a broader executive order that would limit liability for other types of businesses but that a legislative remedy “would be more effective” and Kemp would be “open to working on legislation on the topic with the General Assembly.”

Proponents hope a more limited bill that would expire after less than a year and is focused solely on the coronavirus could win some Democratic support in Georgia.

“We want bad actors punished just as much as anybody else because it’s not good for the business community to defend those people,” said Meagan Hanson, a former Republican House member who’s now executive director of Georgians for Lawsuit Reform, a group that’s received funding from banks, the medical insurance company MagMutual and Koch Industries. “We’re trying to find that happy medium.”

Some senior Democrats have indicated they're open to at least considering such legislation, which is being spearheaded in the state Senate by Roswell Republican John Albers. They say any measure must include protections for workers.

"We want to make sure people have a proper avenue to redress any claims they do have and we also want to make sure that businesses aren't harassed or improperly sued," said Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson, D-Stone Mountain.

The Georgia Trial Lawyers Association said it could support a coronavirus liability bill that was “temporary, limited and did provide some recourse for people with legitimate claims against a business that really was not being safe, responsible or grossly negligent,” said Pope, the group’s incoming president.

Staff writers James Salzer and Bill Rankin contributed to this article.

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