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COVID-19 liability protection bill filed in Legislature

By Mary Sell, Alabama Daily News

Legislation to give businesses and other groups liability protection from civil lawsuits related to COVID-19 is expected to be a priority when Alabama lawmakers convene their 2021 session next month.

Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, this week pre-filed the bill he said is intended to provide protection from frivolous lawsuits to entities that followed COVID-19-related safety guidelines. Orr said it is not an “immunity bill” for businesses.

“It provides a safe harbor for those entities that acted pursuant to (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and Alabama Department of Public Health guidelines and guidance,” Orr said.

It does not protect businesses that did not make efforts to keep employees six feet apart or provide for other precautions, Orr said.

“That could rise to the level of being reckless, or willful, and is not protected activity,” Orr said.

Entities covered by the legislation include businesses and nonprofit groups, health care providers, educational institutions, churches, governmental bodies and cultural institutions.

Senate Bill 30 already has 17 co-sponsors, enough to ensure passage in the 35-member chamber. It’s been assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The bill is nearly identical to one Orr sponsored in the spring. It cleared a Senate committee but died when House leadership moved to focus only on budget-related and local bills in the COVID-shortened session.

Orr, an attorney, said last year when COVID-19 cases were initially reported in the state, he began to imagine a scenario where thousands of lawsuits were filed by “enterprising lawyers” alleging their clients either caught the virus at their workplaces or as customers of businesses.

He began to draft a bill and as word got out, he said he was contacted by multiple groups, from churches to nonprofits, seeking to be included in the legislation.

Orr said business and trial attorney groups helped draft the legislation. Since then, dozens of bills related to COVID liability have been filed in other states this year and last, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In Congress, Republicans last year pushed for a COVID liability shield for businesses, but it was rejected by Democrats in the relief package approved in late December.

“That makes it all the more important that we address this on a state level,” Orr said.

Orr’s bill has support from multiple groups and agencies in Montgomery, including the Medical Association of the State of Alabama and the Business Council of Alabama.

“BCA is thrilled that this important discussion is happening once again,” Katie Boyd Britt, the organization’s president and CEO, said. “Businesses across our state are doing everything they can to responsibly keep their doors open and allow Alabamians to safely provide for their families. This legislation provides important protections as we diligently work to navigate this new normal and strive to restore production and revive jobs across Alabama.”

The Alabama Hospital Association also favors the bill.

“We not only support Sen. Orr’s efforts, we thank him and all that have been involved in working to bring this proposal forward,” Danne Howard, executive Vice President of the association, said. “Since March of 2020, Alabama’s healthcare delivery system has been challenged beyond imagination.  Even so, our hospitals, physicians, nurses, and every healthcare worker have met those challenges with immeasurable effort and determination.  Still today our hospitals are stretched to the limit in caring for those who have become ill from COVID-19, but also in responding to every other medical need of our citizens.”

Medical Association President Dr. John Meigs said that since the beginning of this pandemic, Alabama physicians have been – and will continue to be – on the front lines fighting COVID-19.

“From adopting new ways to interact with limited personal protection equipment in a rural medical clinic to facing difficult triage decisions and working long hours in the COVID-unit of an urban hospital, these unprecedented circumstances have substantially increased the pressures and demands on physicians and health care workers and drastically altered how we deliver care,” Meigs said. “We thank Sen. Orr for his leadership in continuing the push for these much-needed liability protections as we find ways to continue providing quality care to Alabamians.”

Liability protection legislation is on the Alabama Community College System’s list of priorities for the upcoming session.

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