The Georgia state House has voted in favor of extending by one year a law that protects businesses from being sued by a person that blames them for contracting COVID-19.
The protection is currently set to expire on July 14. But House Bill 112, which passed the House Tuesday by a vote of 99-68, would extend it to July 14, 2022.
The vote was largely split along party lines, with Republicans in favor of the extension and Democrats opposed.
The law sets a high bar for lawsuits against businesses, health care providers and other protected entities. They would have to display gross negligence, willful and wanton misconduct or reckless or intentional infliction of harm to lose in court.
Hospitals and medical professionals are already exempt from legal liability under an executive order signed by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, but those protections end when Kemp’s emergency powers run out.
Republican lawmakers argued that the protections have allowed businesses to stay open during a time of great economic upheaval.
“We know that our businesses continue to struggle to stay open. We know that our hospitals and our medical community continue to struggle to take care of the Georgians that are our constituents,” said Rep. Trey Kelley, a Republican from Cedartown. “At a time when they’re being attacked by this horrible virus, what we don’t need is for them to be attacked by frivolous lawsuits.”
Rep. Kasey Carpenter, a Republican from Dalton, said the extension will help shield small businesses from lawsuits that could sink a business and put workers out of a job.
Carpenter said the bill will protect “employers who simply want to operate their businesses, to keep their communities going and to keep their employees working.”
But Democrats argued that the law gives cover to businesses even when they act irresponsibly.
Rep. Bee Nguyen, an Atlanta Democrat, said lawmakers should not shield businesses that violate CDC guidelines, don’t provide adequate personal protective equipment and neglect the safety of their employees.
“This bill does nothing but enables bad businesses to get away with endangering the health and safety of their workforce,” she said.
Rep. Matthew Wilson, a Democrat from Brookhaven, referenced a meat processing plant in Iowa where managers bet on how many workers would test positive for the virus, while arguing against the bill.
“That’s the kind of abhorrent and abject disregard for human life that this kind of liability shield has allowed to infiltrate our society this past year,” Wilson said.
The bill will now go to the state Senate for more debate. Senators had sought even stronger protections for businesses during last year’s legislative session but ended up agreeing to the House version.
Associated Press writer Jeff Amy contributed to this report.
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