Senate Weighs Broad Coronavirus Liability Shield for Employers

Senate Republicans are drafting legislation that would let employers choose which government coronavirus safety guidelines to follow in order to be shielded from lawsuits if their customers or workers contract the virus, GOP Senator John Cornyn said Wednesday.

Cornyn said in an interview that the liability proposal — which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says is a “red line” for talks with Democrats on the next big economic stimulus bill — will likely be released next month. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other groups are pushing hard for curbs on lawsuits as the nation emerges from lockdowns that have paralyzed the economy.

Republicans’ proposal will give employers latitude to decide which guidelines they’ll follow, whether from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or a different federal, state or local governmental entity, Cornyn said. He said there are conflicts among the safe-practices guidelines available to employers, and that companies should be allowed to make their own determination.

“If you are in good faith following the guidelines of a governmental entity, whether it’s CDC, or your governor or your mayor, then that would be a safe harbor against and a bar to liability,” said Cornyn of Texas.

Democrats’ Willingness

That could be a point of contention with Democrats, whose support will be needed to get the next economic stimulus bill through the Senate. Republicans control the chamber with 53 votes, and it takes 60 votes to advance a bill over opponents’ objections.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has indicated some willingness to consider liability protections for employers if they meet CDC guidelines related to reopening the economy, but she hasn’t laid out specific details. However, Pelosi and Senate Democratic leaders have said they won’t agree to a lawsuit immunity provision for businesses that is crafted too broadly.

“I believe overwhelmingly the American people do not want to give immunity to any businesses that do not want to make a good, sincere and good-faith effort to protect their customers and employees,” Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democratic leader, said Wednesday.

McConnell has said the GOP proposal will be retroactive to 2019 and will provide protection against lawsuits through 2024. He also said Wednesday that it will apply to employers throughout the economy.

“It would cover not just businesses,” he said. “Universities, hospitals, doctors, nurses — everything in the coronavirus space.”