Mississippi Lawmakers Seek to Limit COVID-19 Liability to Businesses

By Leah Willingham | June 26, 2020

The Mississippi Senate is working to limit lawsuits by customers who say they were exposed to the new coronavirus at businesses or medical offices.

Senate Bill 3049 would shield businesses, health care providers, religious organizations and other entities from lawsuits related to COVID-19 if they show a “good faith” effort to follow public health guidelines.

Republican Gov. Tate Reeves has pushed for the bill. If it lands on his desk and he signs it, the bill would take effect retroactively to March 14.

“In the beginning of this thing, nobody really knew what to do. Should you wear a mask, should you not, should you do this, should you do that? It provides some protection for our essential business who did remain open,” Senate Judiciary A Committee Chairwoman Sally Doty said during a hearing on the bill Tuesday.

Doty, a Republican from Brookhaven, said fear of litigation has stopped businesses from providing services the last several months. She said the problem is still persistent now that state is reopening.

The bill would still allow people to sue if plaintiffs can show “clear and convincing evidence” that a business owner acted with “actual malice or willful, intentional misconduct.”

“It still allows recovery of damages if there is a bad actor,” Doty said.

The bill is being introduced after Reeves suggested it during news briefings on the virus. It cleared the Judiciary A Committee by a voice vote Tuesday and will move to the full Senate for consideration.

Several Republican lawmakers praised the bill, including Sen. David Parker of Olive Branch, who runs an optometry and ophthalmology practice.

“There, really and truly, is a fear out there, that you may do a procedure on somebody to try to help them with that condition, and even taking the greatest precautions you can in the operating facility, they may develop COVID. … There is a fear in the medical community that I see that if they go back to doing procedures too early than they will be punished for it,” Parker said.

Democratic Sen. Derrick Simmons of Greenville, a lawyer, asked why the bill caps damages at $250,000 for those who prove that a business owner acted maliciously, when the state usually caps non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases at $500,000. Doty said lawmakers are trying to balance the needs of business owners and those of the public.

The Mississippi Health Department said Tuesday that Mississippi – with a population of about 3 million – has had at least 22,898 cases and 989 deaths from the coronavirus as of Monday evening. That was an increase of 611 cases and 11 deaths from the numbers reported a day earlier.

The number of coronavirus infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected without feeling sick. For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up within weeks. For others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause severe symptoms and be fatal.

The Health Department said at least 2,418 cases of the virus have been confirmed in long-term care facilities such as nursing homes, with at least 494 virus-related deaths in those facilities.

The department also said Tuesday that 263,811 coronavirus tests had been conducted in Mississippi as of Wednesday. More than 10,713 of those were blood tests that detect whether a person has antibodies that usually show up after an infection is resolved.

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Leah Willingham is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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