Proposed Bill Grants Businesses Legal Immunity Against COVID-19 Lawsuits

NJBIZ — May 29, 2020

By: Daniel J. Munoz

If you were infected with COVID-19 at your place of work, or a restaurants or a store where you shopped, a bill introduced by state Republicans on Thursday would clamp down on the kind of legal actions you could take against the owner.

Assembly Bill 4189 would grant immunity to businesses against any claims stemming from COVID-19 where a person believes they were exposed to the virus at their establishment.

That comes as the Murphy administration gradually lifts restrictions on what businesses can open during the pandemic - with some businesses fearing a wave of potential lawsuits.

"They're concerned that anyone who goes" to their store would claim to have been exposed to the virus there, one of the bill's sponsors, Assemblyman Greg McGuckin, R-10th District, a sponsor of the bill told NJBIZ.

"That's going to have a chilling effect on people trying to open their business."

The question is playing out on a national scale: how to reopen businesses on the one hand and protecting the health of employees and customers, while on the other hand, making sure business owners are not subject to an onslaught of legal actions.

"You have so many small businesses trying to stay alive after being forced to shut down that have little cash left, so a single lawsuit could wipe them out even if the owner did nothing wrong," Eileen Kean, director of the New Jersey chapter of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, said in a Thursday statement.

The immunity, under the bill, would not extend to protection against "willful misconduct, reckless infliction of harm or the intentional infliction of harm."

McGuckin said that could extend to a business owner that allows people to come in without face coverings or one who does not enforce social distancing.

Both of those actions are required under the host of executive orders that Gov. Phil Murphy enacted over the past two months to stop, or at least slow down, the spread of COVID-19.

Grocery stores and most retail, for example, are required to halve their capacity, leading to long lines outside stores, and an uptick of curbside pickup and online ordering.

Nationally, the White House and U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, said that such legal immunity for businesses would be a major concession in exchange for federal support to states such as New Jersey, which is seeing a $10 billion revenue shortfall as a result of the COVID-19 recession, and massive expenses to combat the pandemic.

And universities both in New Jersey and across the country are pushing for some kind of legal immunity from virus-related lawsuits once campuses open - likely in the fall on some limited basis.

Several colleges, at a remotely-held Senate Higher Education Committee hearing on May 19, made pleas with lawmakers so that they would have some type of legal barrier against suits from students, faculty and staff who believe they were exposed to the virus while on campus.

A4189 was introduced on Thursday. It does not have any Democratic sponsors, and the offices of the state's two top lawmakers — Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-19th District, and Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District — did not comment on the measure.

But it's met intense resistance from progressives and labor rights activists.

"If New Jersey truly values the essential workers who are risking their lives to keep our economy running, lawmakers should not be taking away their right to a fair day in court when they have been harmed by a negligent boss," Nicole Rodriguez, research director at the progressive-leaning New Jersey Policy Perspective, said in a statement.

And Dena Mottola Jaborska, associate director at the worker advocacy group New Jersey Citizen Action, cautioned that the bill would offer blanket immunity and "allow for recklessness on the part of business owners."

"This bill and all immunity bills are a rollback of worker and public protections, letting employers who fail to operate healthy and safe workplaces, off the hook from any accountability," Jaborska said.

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