Georgia Senate panel approves coronavirus protections for businesses

Sen. John Albers, speaks from the Senate floor earlier this year.    BOB ANDRES  / BANDRES@AJC.COM
Sen. John Albers, speaks from the Senate floor earlier this year. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

A Georgia Senate panel on Monday took the first step toward putting guidelines in place to protect businesses and health care providers from being held liable if workers, customers or visitors contract COVID-19.

Senate Public Safety Chairman John Albers, a Roswell Republican, shepherded the legislation through his committee on Monday, amending a bill that initially would have created a specialty license plate for the Georgia Tennis Foundation.

The legislation would protect businesses, organizations and health care providers from March 14, the date Gov. Brian Kemp declared a public health emergency, through two years after the emergency order expires. The current order is set to expire June 30.

Supporters of the legislation have said they believe it will cut down on frivolous lawsuits.

“Most people couldn’t prove they got COVID from simply going to a restaurant or going to the pool of their homeowners’ association,” Albers said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean (businesses) wouldn't have to fight that, which, obviously, could be concerning.”

The panel’s three Democrats voted against the measure, which passed 5-3.

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.

Albers said the proposal, which has been inserted into House Bill 216, will not allow businesses and organizations to have a free pass to not follow health and sanitation guidelines laid out by the state.

According to the proposed legislation, businesses and other organizations — including charity groups and municipal and state governments — would be protected from civil lawsuits if a person gets sick and/or dies from COVID-19 after being exposed to the disease on the property. Health care providers also would be protected from liability lawsuits.

The groups would not be protected if it was found the disease was spread as a result of “gross negligence, willful and wanton misconduct, reckless infliction of harm or intentional infliction of harm.”

If the Senate passes the legislation, it would have to be approved by the House before the session ends. Lawmakers have 10 remaining legislative days to approve laws, though the last day of session has not yet been finalized.