Missouri Legislature eyes COVID liability protections

Special session had to be "paused" due to COVID-19 cases at the capitol.

JOPLIN, Mo. – Missouri lawmakers consider legislation that would provide protection against lawsuits for places like hospitals, businesses, and schools during the pandemic.

In June, the Missouri Chamber of Commerce, with signatures from more than 600 businesses, organizations, and individuals, sent a letter to Governor Mike Parson, calling for him to call a special session to enact legislation for this purpose.

A special session on a supplemental budget bill was started on November 5th. On November 12th, the Governor expanded the session to include discussions on COVID-19 liability.

“None of these groups should be penalized for their efforts to respond to a declared state of emergency. They must be able to continue operating and serving the public without risk of unnecessary and frivolous claims,” said Parson on the 12th.

That session, however, had to be paused due to COVID-19 cases among Senators and staff in the capitol. Senator Bill White says he expects the session to resume after Thanksgiving.

The bill that’s being discussed would provide liability protections for health care providers, who are using new drugs and new treatments to help patients with the virus, as well as businesses that have been creating PPE when they weren’t before, and protect schools and churches from lawsuits if someone contracts the disease on their property, as long as the organization is following federal, state, or local safety protocols.

“You don’t want your health care person saying I’m not going to treat you because I might get sued because what I’m treating you with, this drug, it may come out in two months that this drug wasn’t worthwhile,” explains Senator Bill White. “A good Samaritan could come on a car accident. A doctor gets out.. it might be an orthopedic surgeon, and somebody’s got a bad bleeding thing. They do what they can do to try to save that person’s life. They’re protected by our good Samaritan laws. It’s the same kind of thing. We want society as a whole, all of the different components, to be able to respond as necessary to save people’s lives. I feel like this legislation does that.”

But some, like personal injury attorney Scott Vorhees, don’t think it’s a good idea.

“Our Constitution, both the United States and the state constitution, guarantee a right to a jury trial. And what they’re trying to do is take away that right but with no protections being offered to people,” says Vorhees.

He says there are already procedures in place to deal with meritless lawsuits. So extending protections would keep meritorious lawsuits from going forward.

“This is another example of nursing homes, health care providers, insurance companies trying to protect themselves and their profits at the expense of innocent people. Because it’s not a choice between, is there gonna be harm or not. The question is if someone’s at fault. Start there. If they’re a wrongdoer, are they gonna pay for the harms they caused?” says Vorhees.

White says that meritless lawsuits are a problem and that there are already suits piling up in the courts after shutdowns. He also says even if a lawsuit is thrown out, it’s not before an organization has to spent thousands of dollars on legal counsel.

“There is not protection for the really bad actor out there. The one who intentionally is doing something really bad,” says White.

White says that if the current bill doesn’t pass once the special session resumes, he’s prepared to file a similar bill. He also explains that the bill would take effect any time the governor declares a state of emergency.