Kansas lawmakers moved on March 2 to extend protections for businesses from lawsuits over COVID-19.
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill that would give businesses an extra year of protection, until March 31, 2022, from lawsuits from customers or employees who contract COVID-19 if those businesses were “in substantial compliance” with public health orders.
The measure is one of several rising out of the pandemic or Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s response to it that the Republican-controlled Legislature is considering.
The liability shield legislation goes next to the Senate, which also was debating a bill to require all of the state’s local school districts to offer in-person classes to all of their students by March 26. Only a handful of the state’s 286 districts don’t plan to have a majority of their students back in classrooms by then, according to State Department of Education data.
The debates over those measures and others rewriting the state’s emergency management laws come amid ongoing COVID-19 inoculations. Some Republican legislators contend that distribution of vaccines is going too slowly, pointing to federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Data ranking Kansas near the bottom of states for doses administered per 100,000 residents.
Kelly and state Department of Health and Environment officials contend that reporting issues have led the number of doses administered to be underreported and the department is working to fix that problem. Senate President Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican, said the distribution had been a “colossal disaster” but lawmakers are getting fewer complaints now.
“You can only go up from the bottom,” he said. “I think things are at least trending in the right direction, but I would still contend that’s the only direction it could go,” he said.
Legislators last year enacted a law to protect health care providers from being sued over medical decisions they made during the pandemic. They also protected adult care homes that followed state rules and public health directives and manufacturers that provided personal protective or medical equipment.
But the general protection from lawsuits for stores, restaurants, bars and other businesses is due to expire March 31. Supporters of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s bill said extending the protection another year will give lawmakers time to see how many cases arise.
Eric Stafford, a lobbyist for the influential Kansas Chamber of Commerce, said the group hasn’t heard of any cases, but, “If COVID never goes away, we would prefer that the liability protection never goes away.”
Some attorneys and lawmakers argued last year that the protections provided by the Legislature and could shield some bad behavior. Callie Denton, executive director of the Kansas Trial Lawyers Association, said the dearth of lawsuits shows the protections aren’t needed.
Andy Tsubasa Field is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative.
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