NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Tennessee Senate advanced legislation Thursday that would provide nursing homes, grocery stores and other businesses sweeping protections from coronavirus lawsuits.
The measure is similar to the growing trend going on in states that have begun to reopen since shutting down months earlier, with supporters arguing employers need assurance they can open their doors without facing a wave of litigation.
However, critics warn that such actions only add another impossible barrier to employees seeking restitution from businesses that placed them at risk.
“We all want protections for businesses to open. None of us want frivolous lawsuits,” said Democratic Sen. Sara Kyle, from Memphis. “But these are the toughest cases to bring in Tennessee.”
Lawmakers took up the bill as the Senate nears the end of its business for the year. Along with taking the business immunity proposal, the Senate advanced a drastically trimmed $39.4 billion spending plan for fiscal year 2020-21.
According to the bill, qualifying businesses would not be liable for any “damages, injury or death” from allegedly contracting coronavirus at their establishment unless the claimant can prove “gross negligence or willful misconduct” that the businesses did not properly comply with public health guidelines.
The bill also stipulates that anyone seeking to file a lawsuit must include a statement from at least one coronavirus expert who agrees there is a “good faith basis” to submit the claim. The law will apply for any coronavirus-related lawsuits between when Tennessee reported its first confirmed case of COVID-19 on March 5, 2020 to July 1, 2022.
Gov. Bill Lee has already come out in favor of offering more protections to businesses, arguing that employers “need to be protected from frivolous and inappropriate litigation.”
Under Lee’s leadership, Tennessee was one of the first states to begin reopening in late April after the Republican reluctantly issued a safer-at-home order that forced businesses to close.
Lee has since continued to relax restrictions in order to help boost the state’s economy, which has seen record-high unemployment numbers.
Yet doing so means reassuring businesses they won’t be hit with lawsuits that will potentially financially cripple them.
“This will bring relief to every part of the state,” said Sen. Mike Bell, a Republican from Riceville.
The bill advanced Thursday with unanimous support from the Tennessee Senate’s Republicans. Four Democratic members chose to vote “present.” It must now pass the House before it can go before the governor’s desk.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.
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