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Senate passes COVID liability bill

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — The Missouri Senate easily passed Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer’s COVID liability protection bill Tuesday morning, sending it on to the lower chamber for further consideration. 

SB 51 would protect certain businesses, accommodations, and activities from being held liable for exposure to COVID-19 unless a plaintiff could clearly prove the entity or individual acted in willful or reckless conduct that caused exposure to the virus. 

“This is an important first step to begin reopening our economy, reopening our churches, and reopening our schools,” Luetkemeyer told The Missouri Times. “The protections provided in this bill to small businesses will ensure they can reopen without fear of endless lawsuits. It helps ensure kids can return to the classroom where they belong, and it protects our religious institutions from being shuttered.”

The bill was passed by a vote of 20-13. GOP Sens. Rick Brattin, Mike Moon, Bill Eigel, and Paul Wieland were among the dissenting votes. 

“The aim of SBs 51 and 42 was to protect businesses, hospitals, and entities providing products designed to protect against the coronavirus. The bill fell short of that aim by giving immunity to health care facilities but not to all businesses,” Moon told The Missouri Times. “If the desire was to protect Missouri businesses from any liability related to exposure to a virus, a bill which would have been fair to all concerned should have been presented.”

“Our society is beset by challenges from tyrannical local governments and special interests who seek to use the virus for personal gain and profit,” Eigel said. “The seventh amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees that every citizen retain access to the court system as a protection of their livelihood. Instead of protecting those rights, SB 51 grants unfair immunity to special interests who have harmed consumers as a result of negligence in operations or product. It is our job as conservative leaders to protect the rights of our citizens.”

The bill’s emergency clause, which would have allowed it to take effect upon receiving the governor’s signature, failed to pass by the required two-thirds vote.

The Senate spent nearly 15 hours perfecting the bill earlier this month, marking the first lengthy filibuster in the upper chamber this year. The night ended with a series of tweaks from both sides of the aisle adopted.

“The bill already went through 15 hours of debate and compromise,” Luetkemeyer said. “After that level of deliberation, I wasn’t surprised there wasn’t a protracted debate.” 

The Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry applauded the bill’s passage but decried the failure of its emergency clause. 

“If we want to restart our economy and recover from this pandemic, we must protect Missouri employers from opportunistic COVID-19 lawsuits. The threat of this litigation looms over every employer in Missouri,” President Daniel P. Mehan said in a statement. “I’d like to thank the Missouri Senate for making this a priority and passing this legislation. However, the failure to pass the emergency clause is bad for employers and hurts our economic recovery.”

The bill includes a rebuttable presumption of an assumption of risk by a plaintiff in exposure actions when a business or individual posts certain health warning signs or other written notices. Religious organizations are not required to post such signs. The bill does not allow changes in policy or procedure by a business or individual meant to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 to be considered evidence of culpability or liability. 

Health care providers are protected under the bill except when a plaintiff can prove recklessness or willful misconduct and allege the damage resulted in personal injury was caused by such recklessness or willful misconduct. 

Gov. Mike Parson identified the bill as a priority during his State of the State address. The bill was previously considered during 2020’s second extraordinary session but was withdrawn by Parson in favor of more work during the regular session. 

Kaitlyn Schallhorn contributed to this report. This story has been updated with Eigel’s statement.