The world will eventually recover from the health challenges caused by COVID-19, but even after we have a vaccine or treatment, allowing companies to return to business as normal, many employers will face a new pandemic: the pandemic of litigation facing businesses in the wake of COVID-19.
In fact, since May 1, more than 1,300 COVID-19-related lawsuits have been filed. The complaints filed against businesses include wrongful termination for employees who needed to self-quarantine, businesses that didn’t adequately warn their customers about the risk of coronavirus spread, wrongful death, and refunds for special events or travel.
And the potential growth opportunity for increased litigation is exponential. In fact, a Google search for “coronavirus lawyers near me” yields over 400 million hits.
Businesses are taking the litigation threat seriously and asking lawmakers for help. Among the questions they are asking are: How are businesses supposed to protect themselves when the science of coronavirus is still inconsistent? And, even for businesses that do encourage social distancing and face coverings, some customers are refusing to follow those guidelines. How can businesses be held accountable for the actions of a resistant customer? Finally, how does one prove where they or a loved one contracted COVID-19?
So far, businesses are finding that Republican lawmakers are sympathetic. The Georgia legislature has passed a bill on party lines that raises the bar for bringing a coronavirus lawsuit, requiring the plaintiff to demonstrate willful negligence. North Carolina, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wyoming have already signed similar bills into law. And, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, as of June 29, 93 COVID-19 liability bills have been filed in 27 states.
Congress is considering a liability shield that would provide a safe harbor for businesses in every state. Senate Majority Leader, Republican Mitch McConnell has recognized that the litigation epidemic has already begun and is pushing for liability protection in the next COVID relief package. He furthermore says that the threat of litigation will “dramatically slow” the country’s economic recovery. Meanwhile, Democrats, including House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi, are resistant to such protections for businesses that don’t follow the CDC guidelines, which have been inconsistent. The details of a potential federal COVID-19 shield law are largely unknown, as Democrats and Republicans are in a stand-off. Because the Senate is Republican-led and the House led by Democrats, neither party can pass a bill without the support of the opposing party. The bargaining chip for both parties is the next COVID-19 relief package. Democrats are promoting a $3 trillion relief package. But Leader McConnell remains committed to not passing any further COVID-19 relief bill that does not include litigation protection.
Congress is expected to have a negotiated relief bill by late July.