Millions of Missourians have suffered — and continue to suffer — through this pandemic and the ensuing lockdowns. If you ask me, our state cannot reopen soon enough. It’s high time that we give the much-need relief our small businesses are clamoring for and let them reopen their doors. It’s high time to let the people return to the churches and fill the pews. It’s high time to have kids back in school and back to learning. I think we’ve met the point where the longevity of the shutdowns has outweighed the mitigating effect it has on spreading COVID.
That being said, I understand how the decision to reopen comes down to local authority and local control. I applaud Gov. Mike Parson on making clear from day one that the state government was not going to step on local decision makers and local control. Clearly, the decision to reopen the businesses, the schools, and the churches lie with the local leaders in the community. Many of them face difficult decisions on whether to reopen or to remain closed. Whatever factors into that decision making, I think there is one thing that should not be considered — the fear of a lawsuit related to COVID.
A lot of people are saying that fears about lawsuits relating to COVID are overblown, but I could not disagree more. As a business owner, I have faced countless frivolous lawsuits from plaintiffs looking to make a quick buck and trial lawyers hoping to profit off it. When it comes to even the most frivolous of harms, it seems the trial attorney will all appear from the cornfields and find a way to hail you into court. Whatever it may be for, if you can sue it, they will come.
What could be worse for a small-business or a church or a nursing home or a school than a costly and time-consuming lawsuit about potential COVID liability. Even our county health departments live in fear of being sued. Imagine the endless possibilities of all the liabilities: A person contracts COVID, and they start thinking through every place they’ve visited lately — the local bank, the elementary school, the local parish, the corner pharmacy. In this person’s mind, every one of these locations is a potential defendant in a lawsuit trying to establish fault on the part of the establishment. And from my experience with trial attorneys, they would be all too happy to sue on behalf of this litigious personality.
Even if it is extremely unlikely the plaintiff would win in court, a losing case has never stopped a trial attorney from trying to get a good settlement. No, the only thing that stops a trial attorney is if they know there is little chance of recovery or settlement. The only thing that can assure these frivolous COVID lawsuits stay out of court is to pass the urgent legislation that would absolve organizations from liability related to COVID outbreaks.
We all know the risks at this point; people can make informed decisions about which establishments to frequent and to weigh the risks of going out or staying home. As the institutions in our community continue to reopen, we do not want them slamming the door shut out of fear of frivolous lawsuits. Lawmakers who oppose COVID liability reform are only helping one class of people — the trial lawyers who profit off suing the pants off our friends and neighbors. We need to do the right thing and pass this liability reform so that we can continue to safely and swiftly reopen our state.
State Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin is a Republican who represents SD 18. She was first elected to the legislature in 2018.