General Assembly approves legislation calling for temporary COVID-19 liability assistance

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The Republican-led Pennsylvania General Assembly approved House Bill 1737, which offers temporary liability protections for healthcare providers, schools, businesses, manufacturers, and others from unfair civil lawsuits for good-faith actions taken during the pandemic.

The legislation was approved by the House of Representatives in a vote of 104-98 on Friday, following passage in the Senate on Thursday by a 29-20 vote.  The legislation now heads to Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf for consideration.

“When I talk to struggling business owners and nonprofit organizations, they express fear that one lawsuit could be their death sentence,” said state Sen. Lisa Baker (R-20th District), who authored several key components of the amended legislation. “Those fighting to stay open do not need to incur litigation costs and potentially get hit with judgments on top of all the other pressures and stresses afflicting them.”

Legislation advocates assure that House Bill 1737 does not provide blanket immunity and bad actors will still be held accountable for intentionally wrongful or reckless acts.

David N. Taylor, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association, applauded the bill’s passage and thanked the General Assembly for its acknowledgement of the private sector’s work in responding to, innovating for, and ultimately overcoming the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Today, the General Assembly protected the manufacturers that have re-tooled to meet the dire need for personal protective equipment and the medical professionals who are on the front lines caring for COVID-19 patients,” Taylor said.

“To be clear, this legislation does not provide complete immunity for anyone. It simply ensures that if businesses, institutions, and organizations follow public health directives set by federal or state governments, they will be granted basic protections against being sued,” Taylor added.

Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry President Gene Barr similarly commended the passage of the legislation, which he said shows the House and Senate support for the Commonwealth’s broad-based business community.

“These liability protections are targeted, narrow in scope and temporary – which Pennsylvania businesses desperately need as they struggle to overcome the economic challenges the COVID-19 pandemic has placed on them,” Barr said. “[These businesses] need the certainty that targeted and temporary safe harbor protections can provide while they work to bring our economy out of this difficult time, and they need it immediately.”

The PA Chamber has long called for targeted liability protections for entities that have already spent significant resources to ensure compliance with state and CDC-issued health and safety guidelines and are now encountering an avalanche of frivolous lawsuits that are being exploited by individuals and lawyers.

Earlier this week, the Chamber cited a recent poll from the Institute of Legal Reform, which stated that 79 percent of Americans from across the political spectrum support liability protections for businesses and entities operating in good faith by following state and federal guidelines.

“This isn’t a partisan issue,” Barr said. “And businesses that do not take the public’s health into account should be prosecuted to every extent of the law.”

The highly debated bill has received significant pushback for increasing which groups the bill protects and to what legal stature from Democratic leaders, including state Rep. Austin A. Davis (D-35thDistrict), an original cosponsor of House Bill 1737, who withdrew his support for the legislation following the addition of the Senate amendments.

“I’m very disappointed in what the Senate amended into this bill,” Davis said. “House Bill 1737 was originally my legislation to eliminate blight in struggling communities….As amended, House Bill 1737 is nothing more than a disgusting attempt by massive corporations, manufacturers, hospitals, and nursing homes to hide in the shadow of healthcare workers’ bravery and to use the COVID-19 crisis as an attempt to protect themselves.”

House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R-171st District), however, defended his support of the legislation’s temporary liability relief on behalf of the “great people who sent us to Harrisburg to represent them and to be their voice in these situations when they cannot be here because they are on the frontline providing these services.”

State Rep. Torren Ecker (R-193rd District), who signed on as a cosponsor of the amended legislation, also defended the bill, stating that it protects the Pennsylvanians who have persevered through the pandemic.

“We all want to get back to a normal. This bill gives us that chance,” Ecker said. “It gives our business owners, our restaurants, our schools, the ability to go forth and make the decisions and follow the guidance but not have fear of liability, fear of frivolous lawsuits, fear of going to court and defending themselves with money they just don’t have.”