As Economies Reopen, Businesses Worry About Liability Lawsuits
NOEL KING, HOST:
In dozens of states, local governments are letting businesses reopen. But some companies say they are worried about liabilities - that, for example, they could be sued by workers who get COVID-19 while on the job. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said last week that businesses have to be protected from these lawsuits.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MITCH MCCONNELL: I want to make sure that we protect the people we've already sent assistance to who are going to be set up for an avalanche of lawsuits if we don't act.
KING: He said those protections might be tied into the next round of economic relief. Now, some leading Democrats say companies should have to establish formal workplace virus protections. Neil Bradley is the chief policy officer at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He's on the line now. The Chamber advocates for businesses.
Good morning, Mr. Bradley.
NEIL BRADLEY: Good morning. How are you?
KING: Good. Thanks. What kinds of lawsuits are businesses afraid of when they reopen?
BRADLEY: Well, in particular, they're concerned about those exposure lawsuits that you just mentioned - that they're going to take all the precautions that the CDC or their local public health authorities recommend. But invariably, either an employee or a customer or some vendor coming in contracts the virus and alleges that they should have done more. This is such an unprecedented situation. Businesses want to step up and do the right thing, but we know this is an insidious virus. And even in doing all the right things, it's really hard to control its spread.
KING: Mitch McConnell talked about an avalanche of lawsuits, which makes me wonder - is there real concern about frivolous lawsuits? With all of the people - the millions of people out of work right now who desperately want to get back to work, is there evidence that frivolous lawsuits are happening?
BRADLEY: There are. We're already tracking over 300 different lawsuits that have already been filed in this period where things have closed down. In some states, we're seeing advertisements on TV by trial lawyer firms actually looking for people to become clients so they can go sue someone. So it's not a theoretical concern.
KING: That's interesting. NPR has done a lot of reporting about people who have been told they have to report to unsafe workplaces. I'll use as an example - meatpacking plants have seen these huge outbreaks. Won't your lobbying just make it harder for ordinary people to have any legal recourse to protect themselves?
BRADLEY: No, and it's important understand what we're asking for here. We're not asking for some type of immunity. We're asking for a safe harbor. So the CDC, OSHA and a state public health authority issues recommendations. A business does its best to comply with those recommendations. That should be a safe harbor for them against those type of frivolous lawsuits. If a business is grossly negligent - if they are willfully forcing workers to work in unsafe conditions, then they don't have that liability protection. No one wants to protect bad actors here. But businesses who are trying to do the right thing shouldn't be second-guessed a year later in a court of law.
KING: How long should these liability protections for businesses last? Is this a forever...
BRADLEY: Should be temporary.
KING: ...Thing or a temporary? OK.
BRADLEY: They should be temporary. Everything we're asking for is temporary in nature. We know that we're going to beat this virus. And when we do, we should revert to the status quo. That's not our long-term position, but we realize this is - we need immediate, temporary targeted relief to give business owners the surety and certainty they need that they can go do the right thing and reopen and not have to worry about those lawsuits that are following on right afterwards.
KING: At the beginning of this outbreak, there was this enormous bipartisan effort to help businesses - to get them back to work, to get their employees back to work. And now we have Senator Mitch McConnell saying the following. Let me play you this tape.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MCCONNELL: What I'm saying is we have a red line on liability. It won't pass the Senate without it.
KING: He's saying that help for businesses won't pass the Senate unless those protections for businesses are in place. Do you find it unfortunate that this has taken a partisan turn again?
BRADLEY: It is unfortunate that it's taken a partisan turn on both sides - without picking fights with either side. It's unfortunate that the comedy that we saw between the two parties at the beginning is now breaking down. It doesn't have to. There's plenty of past bipartisan precedent for reforms like this - Y2K, protections after 9/11. That's all we're asking for in this national emergency.
KING: Neil Bradley is chief policy officer at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Mr. Bradley, thanks for your time this morning.
BRADLEY: Thanks for having me.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.