NFIB State Director in Indiana: Pass Liability Reform Now
Barbara Quandt, State Director in Indiana, was recently quoted on the importance of small business liability reform in the Indy Star. You can read the full article here:
For Indiana businesses big and small, a top priority this year is protection from something that hasn’t happened yet: lawsuits from people who claim to have contracted coronavirus at a store or company.
“We want to be proactive against damaging lawsuits,” said Mark Fisher, chief policy director for the Indy Chamber. “Do you want to wait for the problem to arise to address it?”
Despite widespread concern about such lawsuits financially crippling businesses, there have been no known cases in Indiana. Still, businesses that spent the last year reacting to the unprecedented effects and regulations of the pandemic are trying to get ahead of what they, at least, anticipate will be a serious problem. Advocates for this protection say it’s critical to the industry’s financial recovery.
For months, businesses across the country lobbied lawmakers for federal protection, which held up the relief legislation for millions of unemployed workers and struggling businesses but was ultimately cut, leaving the issue up to the states. Opponents of the federal proposal argued such a legislation was both unnecessary because there are so few of these lawsuits and also would disincentive businesses from providing as safe an environment as possible.
In Indiana, Gov. Eric Holcomb and Republican legislative leaders have made adding coronavirus-related protections a priority for the legislative session which started last week. On the other side of the aisle, Democrats have their reservations about such legislation because it does not explicitly ensure the health and safety of workers, they say.
While many businesses shifted to remote work to keep employees safe, many essential workers in health care, education, food processing and service couldn’t do the same. Throughout the country, health care workers, teachers and factory workers fell sick and died, even with safety precautions like mask-wearing and social distancing.
Complaints of unsafe work conditions flooded media tip lines and state and federal work safety agencies at the start of the pandemic, especially as critical safety supplies like mask and hand sanitizers were in limited supply.
Across the country, there have been some coronavirus infection lawsuits largely aimed at big companies like Tyson Foods and Walmart. However, smaller business aren’t exempt. Guests at an Maine Inn sued the business when people got infected during a wedding reception at the venue.
That’s the biggest fear, said Barbara Quandt, the Indiana State Director of the National Federation of Independent Business.
“It’s a fragile situation for many small businesses,” she said. “Frivolous lawsuits could kill them.”
Proponents of business liability protections are quick to stress that such a legislation would only protect businesses that have followed safety rules and not those that have been negligent.In Indiana, where employees can’t sue employers for workplace injuries or deaths, the protections would largely be from lawsuits from customers.
The coronavirus pandemic put businesses in uncharted territory, forcing closures and shifting health and safety standards and plunging them into financial troubles. Many of these issues have ended up in court. Real estate companies are suing retailers for failing to pay rent. Employees are suing employer over losing their jobs. Contractors are suing businesses for not following through on legally agreed upon plans.
What legislation will look like
A bill on COVID-19 liability was one of the first addressed in committee last week, signifying its importance to Republicans.
“I’ve seen wide support for the idea of COVID liability protection,” Senate President Pro Tempore Rodric Bray, a Republican, said during a legislative leaders panel last month. “It’s an important way to help get our economy back and going, give people the confidence to get back out there, both for businesses or even charitable organizations.”
Two versions of COVID-19 liability legislation have been introduced, so it’s unclear what the final piece of legislation will look like. The Senate’s version, which is only three pages long, simply provides civil immunity if someone is exposed to COVID-19 at a business or a location where an organization is providing a service. That includes at schools and local government functions.
The House’s version is six times as long and also explicitly protects health care workers from certain professional discipline during a state emergency between Feb. 29, 2020, and April 1, 2022. For example, the bill explains that a health care provider cannot be punished for the inability to perform an elective procedure in accordance with an executive order. Since the onset of the pandemic, Holcomb has issued executive orders postponing elective procedures two different times.
Bray said the Senate decided to put health care provider protections in a separate bill.
Both the House and Senate’s versions are retroactive and contain exceptions if someone’s actions constitutes “gross negligence.”
“This is not a free pass for bad actors at all,” said House Speaker Todd Huston, a Republican, during the same panel, “but to provide really thoughtful protections. It’s critical for all employers.”
Democratic leaders are not opposed to liability legislation, but have their concerns. Senate Democratic Leader Greg Taylor argued the bill should be paired with protections for workers.
“Nowhere in the bill, which is disturbing to me, are we giving protections to the Hoosier workers who make those companies go,” Taylor said. “We’re not considering the fact that these Hoosier workers lost opportunities to work during this pandemic.”
Likewise, during last month’s legislative leader panel, House Democratic leader Phil GiaQuinta questioned why there has been a strong push for protections by lawmakers. There have been no related lawsuits in Indiana, nor has he heard much about liability being an issue, he said.
He added that most people do not know where they contract coronavirus, making it challenging for someone to blame one business.
“I have seen one line, ‘Is this a solution in search of a problem?’ ” GiaQuinta said, before adding that he does want to make sure lawmakers help small businesses.
The pandemic has emptied out downtowns and caused businesses across the country to close and leaving those that remain in precarious situations.
Passing the protection will likely speed up the recovery, said Patrick Tamm, CEO of the Indiana Restaurant and Lodging Association. Business will feel more comfortable bringing people back to offices, reopening services or holding events if they know they can’t be sued if they adhere to safety rules.
“It’s not just for us,” Tamm said. “It’s for other businesses to get back to work, get back to offices.”
You can read the full article here.