Lawmakers struggle to balance shielding businesses from COVID-19 lawsuits while keeping workers safe from the virus

Lawmakers struggle to balance shielding businesses from COVID-19 lawsuits while keeping workers safe from the virus
In Virginia, similar bills had been advancing in both the House of Delegates and the Senate. (Source: wvir)

It’s a short bill filled with lawyerly jargon. But it’s one that could have a major impact on future coronavirus-related lawsuits in Virginia.

At its pandemic-response special session, the General Assembly has taken up legislation to give businesses and all other property owners broad immunity from being sued by workers, customers or visitors claiming they were infected with COVID-19 due to lax social distancing protocols.

“Right now, in order for us to have a functioning economy we have to give people some certainty that they can open their business and not immediately get hit with lawsuits for an epidemic that’s nearly impossible to trace,” Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, one of the proposal’s sponsors, said at a hearing last week.

The effort aligns with a national push by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other pro-business groups to preemptively raise the bar for lawsuits ahead of a potential wave of coronavirus litigation. But Democratic legislators appear to be having difficulty finding a balance between safeguarding businesses and protecting workers who may be risking their health for a paycheck.

In Virginia, similar bills had been advancing in both the House of Delegates and the Senate. But the Senate legislation met an abrupt end Wednesday after lawmakers decided they couldn’t reach a deal that would please all sides.

Labor groups who opposed the Senate bill said the immunity it envisioned was so broad it could undermine Virginia’s emergency workplace safety standards for COVID-19, the first of their kind in the nation.

Those rules require employers to enact physical distancing wherever possible, mandate face coverings for employees in customer-facing positions or when distancing isn’t feasible, sanitize common areas daily and provide access to hand washing and hand sanitizer.

Employers also must notify workers within 24 hours if a co-worker tests positive and bar employees known or suspected to be positive for COVID-19 from returning to work for at least three days after symptoms subside, at least 10 days after they were first diagnosed or until they test negative for the virus.

“Those are the policies we need to have in place if we’re actually going to emerge from this pandemic,” said David Broder, president of SEIU Virginia 512, a union of government and home care workers in Fairfax and Loudoun counties. “We were pretty concerned about this bill as a sort of corporate-backed backed attempt to weaken those standards to the point where they weren’t going to protect workers.”

The Virginia Trial Lawyers Association also opposed the Senate bill, saying it would give businesses a “free pass” while asking little in return.

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.