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Senate greenlights COVID protections for Georgia businesses

Georgia Sen. John F. Kennedy, R - Macon, talks on his phone on the Senate floor in February 2020. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com
Georgia Sen. John F. Kennedy, R - Macon, talks on his phone on the Senate floor in February 2020. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Credit: bandres@ajc.com

Credit: bandres@ajc.com

Dems argue measure is overly broad, could have unintended consequences

The Georgia Senate cleared legislation on Tuesday that would shield businesses and health care providers from lawsuits if workers or customers contract COVID-19 at their establishments.

House Bill 167, passed on a largely party-line vote of 31-19, would limit legal liability for companies unless they engage in "gross negligence, willful and wanton misconduct or intentional infliction of harm."

State Sen. John Kennedy, R-Macon, said the changes are necessary for businesses trying to navigate reopening during the coronavirus pandemic.

“To ensure economic recovery, businesses need the assurance that when giving their best efforts… to protect employees and the general public that they in turn will be protected from frivolous lawsuits,” he said. “Not any lawsuit. Not every lawsuit. But frivolous lawsuits.”

Democrats, unions and other critics argue the measure would take away one of the most effective tools frontline workers have for fighting back against unsafe business practices. Gross negligence cases are extremely difficult to prove, they say.

Read more: Georgia businesses seeking protections from coronavirus lawsuits

During Tuesday’s floor debate, state Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta, said House Bill 167 is overly broad and could lead to unintended consequences. She said the language as written could shield nursing homes, which are often owned by large chains, from medical negligence suits far beyond COVID-19.

“I really don’t think it’s the right time for us to be effectively immunizing nursing homes from having to meet the basic standards of care for residents,” Jordan told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution after the vote. “I think it’s appalling, especially when it’s not COVID-related.”

Business groups have urged the General Assembly to adopt legal liability measures, and similar bills are under consideration in a dozen state Legislatures and on Capitol Hill. They say companies that are following guidelines for social distancing, disinfecting workspaces and personal protective equipment should be protected from personal injury lawsuits, and they’ve warned about being subject to an avalanche of litigation without some sort of legislative protection.

Gov. Brian Kemp has taken some unilateral steps to limit legal liability for hospitals, medical personnel and others using the emergency powers the Legislature granted him earlier this spring. But his supporters believe those protections are only valid until those emergency powers expire, which is why GOP leaders drafted the legislation.

The measure now heads to the House, which has only a few days to act before the end of the 2020 session.