At the end of July, lawmakers unveiled a $1 trillion coronavirus relief package that included a bill, known as the “Safe to Work Act,” that would (in part) prevent individuals from suing businesses for coronavirus-related infections and death. Claims arising from “actual, alleged, feared, or potential exposure to the coronavirus” would be subject to the requirements of the bill.
If the bill is enacted, plaintiffs will have to establish that a business was grossly negligent (defined by the bill as reckless disregard of one’s legal duty and the government’s guidelines) or engaged in willful misconduct. For example, if a business fails to require its staff to wear masks despite knowing the risks of failing to do so, this may be grossly negligent behavior by the business. Some plaintiffs have argued that proving gross negligence will be too difficult of a standard to prove in court, which would ultimately allow businesses to unjustly escape liability. On the other hand, proponents have reassured that the standard is fair and undoubtedly possible to meet.
Plaintiffs would also have to establish that a business failed to make “reasonable efforts” to comply with applicable public health guidelines related to the coronavirus. Thus, even if a business has acted grossly negligent or engaged in willful misconduct, it may be able to avoid liability if it can establish that it made a good-faith attempt to comply with guidelines. Again, proponents of the bill reassure that the standard is reasonable, while opponents argue that proving that a business acted in bad faith will be nearly impossible.
All cases arising from the bill would subject the parties to limitations on noneconomic damages, e.g. pain and suffering, unless a plaintiff can prove that the business committed willful misconduct. Advocates for the bill have argued that limiting these types of damages would lower health care and insurance costs for everyone, including plaintiffs not subject to the bill.
Critics argue, however, that limitations on these damages compromise plaintiff’s constitutional rights to recover from a business’s wrongdoing. The bill would also allow prevailing defendants to seek damages if a plaintiff’s claim turns out to “lack foundation” or to have been made in bad faith.
Overall, the bill’s proposed protections could provide businesses with much more security
during the coronavirus’s impacts on the economy. It would allow businesses to focus on reopening, and it would help to support small and medium-size businesses that are struggling disproportionately during the pandemic.
However, advocacy groups have criticized the bill for its likelihood of increasing infection rates across the country, as well as de-incentivize businesses to take precautions if they know they cannot be sued over coronavirus-related infections.