Feb. 3—JEFFERSON CITY — Negotiations are underway in the Missouri Senate to shield businesses, churches and schools from lawsuits related to COVID-19.
The proposal is a top priority of Republican Gov. Mike Parson, who believes potential lawsuits related to the deadly virus could hurt the ability of the state's economy to recover.
"People are unfortunately going to bring lawsuits," said Sen. Bill White, R-Joplin, as the full Senate began debate on the proposal Tuesday.
Opponents, including Democrats and labor leaders, see the changes as potentially undermining worker protections. Sen. Doug Beck, D-Affton, said there is little in the legislation that appears to protect workers.
"I think the point of this bill is to protect the big guys," said Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur. "We need to have access to the courts in a reasonable way."
Some Republicans also raised concerns as debate continued Tuesday night.
Members of the Conservative Caucus said they are worried it could prevent small businesses from suing insurance companies over pandemic-related coverage issues.
Rep. Mike Moon, R-Ash Grove, wants a change to exempt churches from being held liable for causing the spread of the virus.
The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, R-Parkville, says, "No individual or entity engaged in businesses, services, activities or accommodations shall be liable in any COVID-19 exposure action."
The legislation would give companies enhanced protection against lawsuits by customers or employees who contract the virus and accuse the business of being the source of the infection.
"If these lawsuits proceed unchecked, many more businesses, many more jobs, will be lost," Luetkemeyer said in opening up debate on the measure. "This is not something Missouri can afford."
There would be exceptions if a person can prove by "clear and convincing evidence" that an individual or entity engaged in recklessness or willful misconduct that caused an actual exposure to COVID-19. The proposal also would only allow a person one year to file a COVID-related lawsuit.
Parson had asked the Legislature to address COVID tort reform in October, but he ended up dropping his request because lawmakers could not agree on a framework for the legislation.
The governor had hoped for quicker action from the Legislature this year, but the spread of the coronavirus affected members of the House and Senate, as well as legislative employees, in January.
Since the pandemic began, 21 states have approved some form of liability protections.
Sen. Steve Roberts, D-St. Louis, said some elements of the legislation are necessary.
"I understand the need to protect our business owners, our health care workers," Roberts said.
But he added that there are some significant tweaks that need to be made to the proposal. Roberts and Luetkemeyer were negotiating those changes behind closed doors Tuesday afternoon. Some Republicans also suggested the bill needs more work.
"We've got to make sure we're not creating law that prohibits somebody's right to be heard in court," said Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring. "I think there are ways we can narrow the consequences of this bill."
Even though vaccine distribution is underway, signaling a possible end of the pandemic, Luetkemeyer said the Legislature should not stay on the sidelines.
"There is still a risk of a second crisis, one caused by endless litigation against front line health care workers," Luetkemeyer said.
And, he added, "We need to give our small businesses a fighting chance to reopen."
The legislation is Senate Bill 51.
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