Committee Advances Bill Shielding Businesses From Lawsuits Amid COVID-19

Feb 9, 2021

Credit J. Tyler Franklin

A bill that would shield businesses and schools from coronavirus-related lawsuits passed out of a Kentucky legislative committee on Tuesday.

Senate Bill 5 would protect businesses and other entities during the state of emergency from lawsuits unless they were grossly negligent or intentionally defied guidelines related to the pandemic.

Supporters argue the measure is needed to provide certainty for businesses reopening during the pandemic, but critics say it would undermine protections for consumers and workers.

Sen. Chris McDaniel, a Republican from Latonia and owner of a construction company, said businesses that have stayed open through the pandemic need more assurance they won’t be sued.

“A lot of us just did the best we could to balance health, to balance income, to balance contractual obligations,” McDaniel said. “This is a good measure to say, ‘Hey, we recognize what you did, and if you’re a good faith operator, we’re going to take care of you.’”

The bill passed out of the Senate Economic Development, Tourism, and Labor Committee on Tuesday with a vote of 7-4.

Businesses could still be sued for injuries that arise from wanton, willful, malicious, grossly negligent, or intentional misconduct, according to the bill. But they would be protected from ordinary negligence.

But Jay Vaughan with the Kentucky Justice Association says the bill would raise the bar for suing businesses.

“Most cases we have—personal injury, property—usually they would go under a general negligence standard,” Vaughan said.

Legislators from both parties expressed concerns about protections in the bill being too broad, including a provision that would shield businesses from lawsuits for one year after the state of emergency expires.

Sen. Reggie Thomas is a Democrat from Lexington.

“You are insulating people from liability who could do damage after the order is expired,” Thomas said.

“Why wouldn’t we just cut it off at the time that the emergency is withdrawn? That would make more sense to me.”

Senate President Robert Stivers, a Republican from Manchester and sponsor of the bill, said that businesses need protections from lawsuits filed after the end of the pandemic.

“There will still be people dealing with COVID implications and residuals beyond the declared period of the emergency,” Stivers said.

Sen. Phillip Wheeler, a Republican from Pikeville and attorney, argued that the bill sets the bar too high for suing businesses during the pandemic.

“I would have to allege gross negligence, recklessness, wanton behavior. Otherwise, according to this bill, the judge would issue summary judgement and throw me out,” Wheeler said.

Similar liability protections have been pushed by Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell but have not made it into federal coronavirus relief bills over the past year.