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As vaccine bills threaten lawsuits, business groups line up in opposition

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

A north Alabama lawmaker wants to prohibit Alabama businesses and agencies from requiring that their employees or patrons be immunized.

House Bill 31 also says that anyone fired or discriminated against because of their immunization status — it doesn’t specifically mention COVID-19 — can sue the business or entity, which range in the bill from amusement parks to zoos.

“I feel like it’s my body, my choice,” Rep. Ritchie Whorton, a two-term Republican from Owens Cross Roads,  told Alabama Daily News on Monday. “No one is going to tell me I have to put something in my body. It’s not right.” 

The bill isn’t yet available on the Legislature’s website, but copies are floating around Montgomery — and drawing some opposition from some of Alabama’s most influential organizations.

“(The Business Council of Alabama) is opposed to HB 31 and any similar legislation that opens Alabama businesses up to frivolous lawsuits,” BCA Vice President Susan Carothers told ADN Monday. “The Legislature took bold and appropriate steps in the last regular session to provide businesses with much needed immunity from COVID-19 liability. That immunity helped boost Alabama’s economic recovery.”

Lawmakers in February approved a bill from Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, to give businesses and other groups liability protection from civil lawsuits related to COVID-19.

“(House Bill) 31 and similar bills seek to undo that protection and put businesses, particularly small employers, at risk,” Carothers said.

The BCA and more than a dozen other business and medical groups recently signed a letter to lawmakers asking them to oppose HB31.

“The most objectionable piece of this legislation is the open invitation to sue Alabama employers and  businesses,” the letter drafted by the Alabama Civil Justice Reform Committee, said. “Very few, if any, laws have been introduced in the Alabama legislature with more onerous  provisions against business than HB 31.”

The letter also asks legislators not to support House Bill 16, pre-filed by Rep. Tommy Hanes, R-Bryant. It would give employees  “private right of action against an employer for any damages caused by an adverse reaction, injury, or temporary or permanent disability arising from an employer mandate that he or she receive a vaccination for COVID-19.”

The threat of lawsuits is drawing the ire of the business community, which has worked the last three decades resetting the tort table in Alabama.

“As introduced, both pieces of legislation will arm Alabama lawyers with new causes of action against Alabama employers based on their immunization status,” read the letter from ACJRC.

Co-signers on the letter include the Alabama Farmers Federation, the Alabama Association of Realtors, the Alabama Retail Association, the Alabama Trucking Association, the National Federation of Independent Businesses, Manufacture Alabama and the Alabama Road Builders Association.

Whorton declined to say what groups were involved with drafting his bill, but said several conservative groups support it. 

In the 2021 regular session, Whorton sponsored a bill that allowed for religious and personal exemptions from the vaccine. It did not advance.

The bill does not apply to K-12 schools, but Whorton said he doesn’t believe vaccines should be mandated there, either.

House Bill 31 also says that any federal orders or policies related to vaccines “are a violation of the 10th Amendment … and shall be invalid in this state.”

Last month, President Joe Biden issued a mandate that all employers with more than 100 workers require them to be vaccinated or test for the virus weekly, affecting about 80 million Americans. And the roughly 17 million workers at health facilities that receive federal Medicare or Medicaid also will have to be fully vaccinated, The Associated Press reported.

Whorton said he’s gotten calls and emails from people who say they’ll lose their jobs if they don’t get a COVID-19 vaccine. He said vaccine requirements could hurt small businesses if they lose workers in an already tight labor market.

Whorton is an owner of a company that designs and builds custom pools. He said he recommends to his 25 employees the right safety equipment to use and wear.

“But I don’t feel like it’s my right to tell them they gotta inject something in their body,” he said. “I think that’s a personal choice.” 

Whorton is not vaccinated and said most of his employees are not.

“If someone wants to get the vaccine and work for me, that’ there personal choice,” he said. “… But I’ve got 22 who have not taken it and I’m not going to force them to take it because I don’t want to lose workers.”

Whorton said he’d hoped Gov. Kay Ivey would include the bill in her call for a special session next week but doesn’t think she will. Bills in the official call have a lower vote hurdle to clear than those introduced outside of it or in a regular session.

Ivey has said the special session focused on redistricting will start Oct. 28, but her call is still pending. 

Gina Maiola, Ivey’s spokeswoman, said discussions with legislative leadership are ongoing “to determine if any other issues will be included in that call.”

The 2022 regular session begins Jan. 11.

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