Businesses need safe harbor during the storm of a lifetime

By John Schulze, ABC of Wisconsin Director of Legal and Government Affairs

You are probably as tired reading about COVID-19 as you are having to live in a world where we need to think about it every day. The pandemic has caused thousands of infections and the statewide shutdown order has cost hundreds of thousands of jobs in Wisconsin. It was only due to hard work lobbying by ABC’s government affairs staff and members backed by contractors’ decades of sound safety practices that prevented construction from being deemed as unessential as dentists, restaurants and hair salons.

Even though the construction industry in Wisconsin was deemed essential, it was not unaffected; everything from having to take a morning temperature to eliminating group lunch was added to the ever present – but bigger worry – about how the shutdown will affect the next job.

Finally, big and small businesses in other parts of Wisconsin’s economy are reopening, but the road to recovery is uncertain. As we plan for the needed steps to restart Wisconsin’s economy, it is vitally important that employers are able to focus on providing for their customers and making payroll; not worrying about lawsuits. You may have already seen the TV and internet ads trying to recruit plaintiffs related to COVID-19. In a flashback of the McDonald’s hot coffee case, at least one lawsuit has already been led against the manufacturer of Purell hand sanitizer alleging that their claim that the sanitizer kills 99.9 percent of germs is misleading.

Your ABC of Wisconsin chapter government relations efforts have shifted from keeping construction deemed essential to fighting to protect members from lawsuit abuse at both the state and federal level. Proposed solutions include:

Premises Liability Safe Harbor: Protections for all property owners/occupants who are good actors against frivolous lawsuits alleging a plaintiff was infected with COVID-19 at a specific premise. It is not business community specific and would protect homeowners, government entities – including schools and universities – and any other premises including outdoor events and festivals. The safe harbor would not protect bad actors. An entity should lose the liability exemption if they knowingly violated a public health order or spread COVID-19 by acting in a reckless, wanton or intentional manner.

Limitation on Recovery from No-Injury Lawsuits: First, plaintiffs cannot recover if they have not been diagnosed as having COVID-19. Second, even if a plaintiff was diagnosed, they cannot recover damages if they were asymptomatic or had mild symptoms. Again, these protections should not protect bad actors. The limitation should not apply to cases where another’s act or omission that caused the exposure involved reckless, wanton or intentional misconduct.

Employee Testing: Employers should be allowed to test prospective or current employees for COVID-19 without legal liability. Further, employers should be allowed to refuse to hire a prospective employee who tests positive for COVID-19 or refuses to submit a test. Finally, employers should be allowed to require an employee to take leave until they submit to a COVID-19 test, show the negative results of a test, or until they no longer test positive for COVID-19.

Either the state or federal government should act quickly and pass these temporary, targeted measures intended to protect businesses.

This is not about defending employers who recklessly or intentionally caused harm. This is about employers already struggling to stay in business, facing the very real threat of frivolous lawsuits that will push their employees out of their jobs and seriously undermine efforts to restart and rebuild the economy. The goal is to provide safe harbor for businesses who are doing their level best to keep their employees and the public safe from being sued by someone who allegedly contracted COVID-19 at their place of business even if they never got sick. Following federal, state or local public health orders and recommendations can still leave businesses vulnerable to lawsuits alleging a business owner exposed a person to COVID-19.

The government has provided safe harbor in extraordinary times before. As the nation prepared for Y2K, Congress passed a three-year ban on lawsuits over economic losses from related glitches. After the 9/11 attacks, the $38 billion victim compensation fund also eliminated punitive damages and protected airlines against liability for exceeding their insurance coverage for related claims. Already this year, Wisconsin Democrats and Republicans came together to help prevent lawsuits against companies that donate PPE equipment to health care workers fighting COVID-19 on the front lines. These were important first steps, but all Wisconsin employers need reasonable safe harbor protection from liability to serve the public to meet payroll while taking commonsense measures to protect employees and the public.

Either the state or federal government should act quickly and pass these temporary, targeted measures intended to protect businesses that are doing the right thing and will help stabilize the economy so the recovery can continue. We don’t want an “Open for Business” sign to mean “open season” on employers who are trying to do the right thing by restarting and rebuilding the state’s economy. Employers have enough to worry about.

If you would like more information or to participate, please contact John Schulze at 608-244-5883 or jschulze@abcwi.org.

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