Consumer Groups Oppose Immunity for Businesses From Coronavirus Lawsuits

By and | April 30, 2020

U.S. consumer advocates are urging Congress to resist growing demands by companies for protections from coronavirus-related lawsuits as states start to ease pandemic restrictions and businesses begin to reopen.

Led by Public Citizen and the Center for Justice and Democracy, the groups said in a letter sent on Wednesday to U.S. House and Senate leaders that “legal liability is one of the most powerful incentives we have to ensure that businesses operate safely.

“Any recovery requires the public to have confidence that businesses are operating as safely as possible,” said the letter, signed by more than 100 groups. “Establishing legal immunity for businesses that operate unsafely would do the opposite of instilling public confidence.”

On Tuesday, President Donald Trump ordered meat-processing plants to stay open to protect the food supply. The move was designed in part to give liability protection to the operators of the plants, which have been hit by outbreaks of COVID-19.

Chamber Small Business Survey

According to the Chamber’s poll of 500 small business owners, when given a list of six possible small business relief or programs from the federal government, the fewest number of respondents picked “enacting liability protection legislation.” Less than 10 percent of small business owners across all industries chose liability protection, versus 56 percent choosing “direct cash payment” as their top priority. (Special Report on Coronavirus and Small Business, April 3, 2020)

Businesses Fear Lawsuits from Sick Employees, Patrons After Reopening

The fear is that following the advice of public-health officials may not be enough to limit the spread of liability for companies,

The letter, signed by large unions such as the AFL-CIO and Teamsters, highlights the sharpened focus on legal liability as Congress and the Trump administration weigh a fourth stimulus bill to support an economic recovery from the pandemic.

Legal Immunity

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups have been lobbying lawmakers for measures that would protect against coronavirus-lawsuits over business disruptions, wages, leave policies and injury or death caused by the outbreak.

One House Republican told Reuters legal immunity in some form has near universal support in the party.

On Wednesday, Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell said he would insist on protecting businesses from lawsuits as a condition for another stimulus package.

OSHA and Regulation

As more businesses reopen, regulation is also shaping up to be a major point of tension between business and workers who fear becoming infected.

Wednesday’s letter noted that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which oversees workplaces, has “stepped back from its role to protect the health and safety of workers during this pandemic, and is dangerously relying on employers to self-police.”

Despite soaring unemployment, workers have risked their jobs to protest and demand better safety at fast food restaurants, hospitals, warehouses, food processing plants and other businesses that remained open during the pandemic.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Chamber, one of the most powerful business lobby groups, urged the Trump administration and state and local leaders to resist new regulations. A heavy handed approach could lead to regulators fining businesses “when they find a sneeze guard out of place,” the chamber said.

(Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware Editing by Noeleen Walder and Tom Brown)

Photo: Employees clean shopping carts and baskets outside a Whole Foods Market Inc. store in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Tuesday, March 31, 2020. Some workers at Whole Foods Market stores across the U.S. called in sick on Tuesday, part of a coordinated action to demand more sick pay and protections for grocery store employees working through the coronavirus pandemic.

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Latest Comments

  • April 30, 2020 at 1:25 pm
    Craig Cornell says:
    Excellent points, Mark. But this is Insurance Journal. What did you expect, careful accurate journalism?
  • April 30, 2020 at 1:14 pm
    Mark K. says:
    The Center for Justice and Democracy is not a 'consumer' group. It is a front for the trial lawyers, pure and simple. It hides the true nature of who donates to it but I can ... read more

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