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Orr files COVID-19 liability protection bill

Legislation to give businesses and other groups liability protection from civil lawsuits related to COVID-19 is expected to be a priority when Alabama lawmakers convene their 2021 session next month.

Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, this week pre-filed the bill he said is intended to provide protection from frivolous lawsuits to entities that followed COVID-19-related safety guidelines. Orr said it is not an “immunity bill” for businesses.

“It provides a safe harbor for those entities that acted pursuant to (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and Alabama Department of Public Health guidelines and guidance,” Orr said.

The bill blocks liability unless a plaintiff proves by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant acted “with wanton, reckless, willful or intentional misconduct.” Plaintiffs who clear that bar are limited to a recovery of economic damages, except in wrongful death claims. No recovery is allowed for economic loss in a death claim, just a punitive damage recovery.

Orr said the bill would not protect businesses that failed to make efforts to keep employees 6 feet apart or provide other precautions, Orr said.

“That could rise to the level of being reckless, or willful, and is not protected activity,” Orr said.

Entities covered by the legislation include businesses and nonprofit groups, health care providers, educational institutions, churches, governmental bodies and cultural institutions.

The bill, which is similar to an emergency order issued by Gov. Kay Ivey in March, also protects health care providers from claimed injuries which resulted from a lack of resources.

Senate Bill 30 already has 17 co-sponsors, all Republican, which is enough to ensure passage in the 35-member chamber. It’s been assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The bill is nearly identical to one Orr sponsored in the spring. It cleared a Senate committee but died when House leadership moved to focus only on budget-related and local bills in the COVID-shortened session.

Orr, an attorney, said last year when COVID-19 cases were initially reported in the state, he began to imagine a scenario where thousands of lawsuits were filed by “enterprising lawyers” alleging their clients either caught the virus at their workplaces or as customers of businesses.

He began to draft a bill and as word got out, he said he was contacted by multiple groups, from churches to nonprofits, seeking to be included in the legislation.

Orr said business and trial attorney groups helped draft the legislation. Since then, dozens of bills related to COVID liability have been filed in other states this year and last, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In Congress, Republicans last year pushed for a COVID liability shield for businesses, but it was rejected by Democrats in the relief package approved in late December.

“That makes it all the more important that we address this on a state level,” Orr said.

Orr’s bill has support from multiple groups and agencies in Montgomery, including the Business Council of Alabama.

“BCA is thrilled that this important discussion is happening once again,” Katie Boyd Britt, the organization’s president and CEO, said. “… This legislation provides important protections as we diligently work to navigate this new normal and strive to restore production and revive jobs across Alabama.”

The Alabama Hospital Association also favors the bill.

Liability protection legislation is on the Alabama Community College System’s list of priorities for the upcoming session.

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