Republicans eye sweeping shield from coronavirus liability

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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, July 16, 2020. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

WASHINGTON – A new plan from Senate Republicans to award businesses, schools, and universities sweeping exemptions from lawsuits arising from inadequate coronavirus safeguards is putting Republicans and Democrats at loggerheads as Congress reconvenes next week to negotiate another relief package.

The liability proposal, drafted by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and senior Republican John Cornyn of Texas, promises to shield employers when customers and workers are exposed to coronavirus by moving lawsuits to federal court and limiting legal liability to acts of "gross negligence or intentional misconduct," according to a draft of the plan obtained by The Associated Press.

Supporters say the plan protects businesses and other employers who adhere to public-health guidelines in good faith. Opponents argue it will permit wrongdoing to go unpunished. It's up to Congress to resolve the debate, with the outcome likely to determine what legal recourse is available to Americans who contract the virus.

“Even if businesses and hospitals follow all the relevant guidelines and act in good faith, they could end up fighting a very long and a very expensive lawsuit," Cornyn said. “They could end up winning that lawsuit, but they could also end up going bankrupt in the process.

In the courts, gross negligence amounts to “reckless disregard” for the safety of others, which is a high standard to meet. Ordinary negligence, by contrast, occurs when a business owner fails to take reasonable precautions to protect people from the COVID-19 threat. The GOP's proposed standard would apply retroactively to when the coronavirus began to circulate in December and would extend through at least 2024.

McConnell has said for months that some form of liability shield will be in the next COVID response measure, telling an audience in Kentucky on Wednesday that he won't send the next, and fifth, coronavirus response bill to the floor without it.

The liability shield is just one of the difficult issues confronting lawmakers as they launch into negotiations over another coronavirus bill with competing priorities. Other major battles involve whether to renew a $600 per-week bonus federal unemployment benefit, how much assistance to send state and local governments, and whether to indulge President Donald Trump's wish to Social Security payroll taxes.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is firmly on the opposite side of the liability plan, pressing instead for emergency workplace regulations to protect paramedics, emergency medical personnel, and other health care workers at risk of exposure to COVID-19 in their workplace.