Senate GOP seeks COVID-19 liability protections for schools, businesses

Personal injury protections would apply to schools, colleges, charities, churches, government agencies and businesses

Senate Republicans have devised new liability protections for schools, businesses and charities to safeguard them from certain coronavirus lawsuits, a move that advocates say will encourage more of the economy to safely reopen.

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All COVID-19 personal injury and medical liability lawsuits would be funneled into federal courts, according to a summary of the new legislation obtained by Fox News. Under the plan, schools, businesses and frontline health care workers could only be found liable for damages in cases of gross negligence and intentional misconduct.

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The liability protections have been a high priority for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who wants these reforms included in the next round of coronavirus relief legislation, which he argues should focus squarely on schools, health care and jobs.

“I’m not going to put a bill on the floor of the Senate that doesn’t have liability protection in it,” McConnell said in Kentucky on Wednesday. “This would protect hospitals, doctors, nurses, businesses, universities, colleges, K-12, everyone dealing with coronavirus who acted in good faith.”

The White House is currently reviewing the proposal and letters of support from the American Council on Education, the School Superintendents Association, the Association of Educational Service Agencies and the National School Boards Association. The school leadership organizations and others have urged Congress to enact temporary legal safeguards to protect them from excessive and frivolous lawsuits from people who allege they got sick from the virus on their property.

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House Democrats already passed a more than $3 trillion coronavirus relief bill known as the HEROES Act on May 15 that does not include liability protections Republicans have sought. Instead, Democrats want stronger worker protections and their bill calls on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to create new safety standards for employers. Democrats argue businesses would be protected from lawsuit damages if they follow the OSHA guidelines.

"In terms of the immunity that they want, we're saying the best way to do that is to pass the HEROES Act," Pelosi told MSNBC's Chris Hayes on Wednesday. "In the HEROES Act, we have a very strong OSHA provision. The OSHA provision is strengthening even the one that is there now that they're not really enforcing.  But if you have a strong OSHA provision that recognizes the danger of the coronavirus and the employer implements it, he or she has protection, and so does the worker."

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President Trump has been pushing for all schools to reopen in the fall. Under this legislation, as long as schools and businesses make reasonable efforts to follow applicable public-health guidelines they would be protected from lawsuits if students or employees contract the virus.

In this June 30, 2020, file photo, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., with Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., speaks to reporters following a GOP policy meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)

The personal injury protections would apply to schools, colleges, charities, churches, government agencies and businesses. The safeguards for medical liability claims would apply to licensed health care facilities and workers caring for coronavirus patients. The plan calls for heightened pleading standards, clear-and-convincing-evidence burden of proof and caps on the amount of money that could be awarded in damages, according to the summary viewed by Fox News.

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The McConnell-backed legislation would shield employers from agency investigations under federal labor and employment laws for actions they took to comply with stay-at-home orders. It would protect employers from liability for injuries arising from workplace coronavirus testing. The legislation would also shield makers of personal protective equipment if they meet Food and Drug Administration requirements.

The new safeguards would last until 2024 or until the expiration of a declaration under the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act.

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