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COVID liability bills heard in Senate committee

  

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Nearly a dozen witnesses testified on a pair of COVID liability bills before a Senate committee Tuesday, resurrecting the conversation in the Missouri Legislature.

The Judiciary and Civil and Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, chaired by Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, heard the legislation Tuesday afternoon. The bills, sponsored by Luetkemeyer and Sen. Bill White, outlined protections to shield businesses in the state of Missouri from COVID-related lawsuits as long as the businesses followed certain health guidelines.  

“Last year our state, and our nation, and the entire world were shaken by a global pandemic — it devastated our economy, taking us from record low unemployment to near-record job loss and economic devastation,” Luetkemeyer said. “With the distribution of a vaccine now underway, we’re hopefully on the road to a swift economic recovery. There’s still a risk of a second crisis, one caused by endless litigation against frontline health care workers and small businesses as they seek to reopen and put their employees back to work. If lawsuits persist, many more businesses and jobs will be lost.”

More than half a dozen witnesses testified in favor of the bills, with representatives from the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Missouri Hospital Association, and LeadingAge Missouri speaking in support. 

Ken Barnes, president-elect of the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys (MATA) was among those testifying in opposition, saying the legislation would have little effect on Missouri businesses.

“We don’t believe that in times of crisis we can throw the constitution out the window, which is in effect what this legislation would do,” he said. “This is not a pandemic of legal cases; I can’t find a single one that would be covered by this bill. It’s just not an epidemic of lawsuits. If the true nature of this bill is intended to get the economy moving, there are other ways to do it.”

The committee adjourned without entering executive session on the bills. 

SB 42 from Sen. Bill White contained similar language to the three protection components named by Gov. Mike Parson last year: health care workers providing necessary care during the ongoing state of emergency; manufacturers producing, designing, and selling goods directly related to the pandemic; and premises such as schools, churches, businesses, and nonprofits. White said it was an evolution of the original language considered last year.

Luetkemeyer’s SB 51 also covered the medical and manufacturing fields and added limitations to COVID-related suits. Under his bill, litigation must be filed within a year of the alleged exposure. 

Both bills include emergency clauses and would last as long as Missouri remains under a state of emergency, currently set to expire at the end of March.

COVID liability protection was added to the second extraordinary session of 2020 but was withdrawn by Parson before it could pass through a committee in favor of consideration this year. Leadership from both chambers said it would be a priority during the 2021 legislative session. 

The Senate continued to meet this week while the lower chamber paused for the week due to rising COVID-19 cases among the legislature.