Industry leaders and Republicans in the state legislature are teaming up on a plan to protect businesses and other organizations from coronavirus-related litigation.
The liability protections would be “targeted, temporary and timely,” according to Tennessee Chamber of Commerce & Industry CEO Bradley Jackson. His organization this week convened a two-day virtual legislative preview largely focused on liability protections for businesses.
Roland Myers, CEO of the Tennessee Retail Association, said a liability bill would protect businesses from “people out to make a quick buck at our expense.”
Government leaders are on board. Rep. Clark Boyd (R-Lebanon) said such legislation would be “paramount” in the Consumer and Human Resources Committee he chairs. Lawmakers will return later this month to continue the session they hurriedly ended in March due to the spread of COVID-19.
Rep. Michael Curcio (R-Dickson), who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, said a liability bill would be a “huge focus” when lawmakers return.
Republican Gov. Bill Lee, a business owner who led a tort reform effort before running for office, said he supports the effort, too.
“We want companies to open up and invite customers in without fear of inappropriate litigation,” he told the chamber on Friday. “Businesses need to be protected from frivolous and inappropriate litigation that ties them up, and we want to do that here certainly. Y’all need to know we’re committed to that on behalf of businesses.”
Some of the members of the group pushing for liability protection, like National Federation of Independent Business Tennessee Director Jim Brown, stressed that they were not attempting to “let bad actors off the hook.” In cases of “gross negligence,” a standard that would be defined by legislation, litigation should proceed, he said.
The chamber group also emphasized its desire to avoid a legal presumption that essential workers who contract COVID-19 did so on the job, like the one enacted by California Gov. Gavin Newsom by executive order.
Not everyone is on board. Vonda McDaniel, president of the Central Labor Council of Nashville and Middle Tennessee, said employers need to honor the “social contract” with their employees, especially during a pandemic.
“We understand that this crisis cannot continue indefinitely,” she said. “We are asking that our elected leaders at every level of government step up during this time of unprecedented challenge. They should do the right thing for workers and our families. Protect us on the job, keep working people on the payrolls and protect earned pensions, invest in vital public services, ensure health coverage for all workers and rebuild our infrastructure. Employers are responsible for ensuring the health and safety of their workers.”