The COVID-19 pandemic that began last spring changed life as we know it. Government entities around our state and nation shut down our small businesses, closed our schools, and banned people from attending their places of worship at a time when faith in a higher power was the only thing that provided hope for many. Unemployment and poverty rates skyrocketed while our citizens’ mental health declined precipitously. Thankfully, there seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel and society is finally beginning to reopen. People are getting back to work and vaccination rates are increasing while COVID-19 cases are decreasing.
There is a threat, however, that could halt the reopening process throughout our state — the threat of oppressive lawsuits relating to COVID liability. Under the current state of the law, any person who gets COVID-19 could sue any place in town that person visited under the theory that the establishment was “negligent” in allowing him to contract COVID-19. You can imagine how ridiculous the claims would be: “They let in people without masks,” or “they had one less hand sanitizer station than they should have,” or “they didn’t check for vaccine passports.” These are the theories trial lawyers will use to argue our places of worship and businesses were negligent in spreading COVID-19.
And is the point of these claims to win at trial? Of course not. The point is to frighten business owners into fast settlements so that the lawyer gets his cut and moves on to the next lawsuit.
That is why Missouri needs to pass SB 51 into law. SB 51 establishes critical liability protections for Missouri’s health care providers, businesses, manufacturers, and places of worship. These same entities that have already been hit so hard as a result of COVID-19 and the government’s response to COVID-19 are now the ones that are most vulnerable to frivolous litigation. SB 51 provides key protections as it increases the standards by which a place can be found liable for spreading COVID-19. In plain English, it makes it much more difficult to successfully sue. For example, an individual wanting to sue one of our businesses under the belief that business caused him to contract COVID-19 would have to prove under the framework established by SB 51 that the small business was engaged in recklessness or willful misconduct” and that caused the COVID-19 exposure. As an attorney with experience defending our state’s business community in personal injury-type lawsuits, I am convinced these increased protections will decrease the number of frivolous lawsuits while also ensuring egregious actors can still be held accountable.
Additionally, SB 51 gives the strongest liability protections to places of worship of any state in the country. We need our churches and faith communities open again to provide for the spiritual health and wellbeing of our people. Our faith communities should be free to worship without worry that trial lawyers will bankrupt the congregation.
SB 51’s opponents claim that the bill is “Cuomo Care” and that it provides “blanket immunity” to evildoers. While a clever PR move, this “Cuomo Care” label is absolutely inaccurate. Make no mistake, the debacle that took place in New York was due to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s failed leadership in responding to COVID-19. One example of which was in his directing COVID positive patients back into nursing homes, leading to a record number of cases and senseless deaths. Comparing Missouri’s COVID liability bill, which merely increases negligence standards for COVID-19 lawsuits, to Gov. Cuomo’s botched pandemic response lacks credibility. Additionally, SB 51 does not provide blanket immunity to anyone, ensuring actual wrongdoing may still be addressed in court.
Further, and contrary to SB 51’s opponent’s claims, it does not force mask mandates or vaccines nor does it institute new government controls over the population. It also does not create new liability for our businesses — businesses can already be sued now and the negligence standards which apply are not especially difficult to overcome. What SB 51 does do is make it harder to sue the entities in our state which have already been hit so hard, helps get Missourians back to work, and sends a message to our businesses, medical providers, and churches that we have their backs. It protects our small businesses and strengthens our economy.
SB 51 is a necessary measure as society continues to re-open. It’s time to start empowering businesses and individuals to take advantage of improved conditions and to get back to life as we knew it. The trial lawyers may lose out on settlements, but Missourians win on reopening society. It’s time for us in the Missouri legislature to step up and pass SB 51.
Rep. Alex Riley is a Republican who represents HD 134 in Greene County. He is the vice-chairman of the House General Laws Committee.