Bills introduced in the Indiana General Assembly’s House and Senate chambers could protect businesses, health care workers and other entities from COVID-19 related lawsuits unless negligence or misconduct can be proven.
The bills, introduced during January sessions, would provide companies and other groups immunity from lawsuits related to an individual’s exposure or contraction of COVID-19.
Senate Bill 1, a Republican-written bill, passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on Jan. 13, and House Bill 1002, another Republican-written bill, is still in the House Judiciary Committee. The House Judiciary Committee will hear House Bill 1002 at noon Jan. 25.
Senate Bill 1 gives businesses protection against civil lawsuits from people who may have been exposed to COVID-19 at their place of business or through a business transaction or activity. The bill provides civil immunity from harm resulting from the design, creation, distribution, sale or donation of "COVID-19 Protective Equipment," like medical equipment or COVID-19 tests.
House bill 1002 specifically protects health care workers from punishment when abiding by local and executive orders related to health care during the pandemic. The bill applies these protections to health care services after Feb. 29, 2020 and before April 1, 2022.
IU professor of labor and employment law Kenneth G. Dau-Schmidt said the legislature is trying to ensure businesses are not liable for exposure to COVID-19, either from employees, customers or related people.
Dau-Schmidt said businesses are concerned about being responsible for those that can show, more likely than not, that they contracted COVID-19 while at work or within a business. He said it would be difficult for a person to prove that they contracted COVID-19 at work or at a business for a tort, actions that lead to injury or harm, suit. However, a person would probably be able to show they suffered a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 in an environment, like a meat packing plant or hospital.
“That's the liability they're worried about,” Dau-Schmidt said.
Barbara Quandt, Indiana state director for the National Federation of Independent Businesses, said if a business is doing everything it can to protect customers and employees, it should be protected from a frivolous lawsuit.
“In the case of so many small businesses that are barely hanging on after many months of this pandemic, it could be the final straw, ” Quandt said.
Quandt said NFIB sends state and federal surveys to its members once a year, November for state and March and Aug for federal, to gauge what issues are important to them; state ballots are usually received by Jan. 1 and federal ballots are received within a month.
Quandt said she only testifies in the Statehouse if an issue is shown to be important to members, and she said liability protections were some of the highest scores she had ever seen on ballots. Quandt testified in favor of Senate bill 1 in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee Jan. 6.
Dau-Schmidt said he believes the bills will pass through the legislature due to Republicans’ majority in the Indiana legislature.
Talia Halliday, who owns Gather, a retail gift shop, in Bloomington, said the potential protections would be an obvious positive for her store. She said she believes her business is staying as safe as possible. After reopening in June, Halliday said they started requiring face masks, limiting the number of customers, and offering hand sanitizer.
Halliday said that while legislation would be beneficial for her business, she also hoped they could be used by other local businesses.
“I really hope that restaurant owners and bar owners and things like that are able to use that more than we would.” Halliday said.