Priority COVID-19 liability protections were enacted on Wednesday as Missouri lawmakers hope to resolve disputes before they arise amid rising COVID-19 cases in the state.
Senate Bill 51 protects individuals, religious organizations, health care providers and other entities from being held responsible for exposing others to COVID-19, unless the complainant is injured and that ârecklessness or willful misconductâ can be proven.
The new law also notes that a written or published policy regarding the spread of COVID-19 is not required of individuals or entities, and any effort to mitigate the spread of the virus after a positive case has been identified cannot be considered as proof of liability. Customers and employees are also not protected if the location has a warning, the law says, because they assume the risk upon entry. For religious organizations, protections are in place even if these notices are not posted.
Complainants cannot take legal action after two years of the alleged exposure, or one year if the case is against the health care providers.
The new law also protects manufacturers and distributors of COVID-19 products, unless “recklessness or willful misconduct” can be proven.
Gov. Mike Parson said many businesses in Missouri have stepped up to provide assistance during the pandemic, especially early on when supplies were low.
âIt’s to protect these businesses,â Parson said. “The last thing we need to do is punish anyone who tries to help in the midst of a crisis or a pandemic.”
State Senator Tony Luetkemeyer, R-Parkville, has sponsored the legislation that will take effect on August 28.
Luetkemeyer said he believes the legislation protects four groups in particular: small businesses, schools, healthcare workers and religious institutions.
âOf course, we’ve recently seen an increase in the virus, so I actually think this legislation is going to become even more meaningful in the future,â Luetkemeyer said. “I hope it doesn’t, but if it does, I know the state is well prepared to keep our economy running and people employed.”
COVID-19 cases are increasing in the state, as just over 39% of Missourians have a full vaccine. As of Wednesday, the state had 5,015 confirmed cases since the start of the month, with an average of 716 cases per day.
Luetkemeyer said he heard from many schools that potential liability was at the root of some of their operational decisions, such as keeping students in class or at home for virtual learning.
COVID-19 liability protections have been a priority for the Governor and the General Assembly of Missouri for the past year. During his State of the State address, Parson said he wanted the COVID-19 liability protections to be one of the first pieces of legislation he signed.
The legislature finalized the protections on its last day of sitting.
The law is backed by the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which sent a letter with nearly 800 small businesses and individual signatures to Parson earlier this year, and called the legislation its top priority this session.
Daniel Mehan, president and CEO of the Missouri Chamber, said the law is important for Missouri’s economic recovery from the pandemic.
“We know that prosecutors across the country are eager to take advantage of this pandemic. This threat hangs over all Missouri employers,” Mehan said in a press release. âWith Senate Bill 51 now becoming law, employers can reopen with greater confidence and operate knowing they are safe from the type of COVID-19 lawsuits that are rapidly spreading across the country . “
However, not everyone supports the new law.
Brett Emison, former president of the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys, said the legislation violates the right of Missourians to have their claims heard before a jury of peers.
“From August 28, when this takes effect, Missourians will lose that right, in large part, to hold a wrongdoer responsible for subjecting them to this disease,” Emison said.
Emison said a right to a trial is supposed to remain unchallenged, but lawmakers have removed that right completely for specific cases and set standards too high in others with SB 51.
After more than a year of the pandemic, Emison said there were only five miscellaneous COVID-19 tort cases in Missouri, none of which alleged negligent exposure in small businesses. Most, he said, were concerned about business closures by government and insurance companies failing to pay business interruption coverage to small businesses.
Emison said he hoped that cases that this legislation would impact would be in motion before the August effective date and dealt with in accordance with current laws.
The new law expires in four years.