COVID-19 liability legislation moves forward

Tennessee House of Representatives Chambers (Photo: Tennessee Secretary of State)
Tennessee House of Representatives Chambers (Photo: Tennessee Secretary of State)

The Tennessee legislature reconvened today to fast-track Gov. Bill Lee’s proposed legislation to exempt public and private companies and institutions from legal liability related to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In separate committee hearings on Tuesday, during a specially called session expected to wrap up in less than a week, Democratic lawmakers argued unsuccessfully against the measure. 

“The biggest beneficiaries of this bill are not churches, are not hospitals, they’re not schools or businesses,” Sen. Sara Kyle, D-Memphis said during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. 

“The biggest beneficiaries of this bill are insurance companies, who will never have a judgement against them,” she said.

State Sen. Sara Kyle, D-Memphis (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
State Sen. Sara Kyle, D-Memphis (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, argued that many companies that have invested time and money ensuring implementing safety measures for employees and customers. But others, he said, have publicly disregarded state and local guidelines and mandates and should be liable for any harm from their actions. 

“I understand and frankly support this legislature’s willingness to make sure that businesses … that are trying to do right, that are trying to follow public health guidelines have a little bit of certainty and don’t face excessive risk of litigation.,” said Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville.

Yarbro’s efforts to advance a bill that would give individuals more leverage in filing suit failed in committee.

“What I don’t think is acceptable right now is to extend that level of protections to businesses that have clearly and aggressively flouted public health guidance,” he said. 

The legislation, formally named the Tennessee COVID-19 Recovery Act, would protect any individual or entity subject to lawsuits over COVID-19-related damages, injuries or deaths. 

The measure would set “gross negligence or willful misconduct” as the standard for making a successful claim. 

And any claim over exposure to or contraction of the virus would have to be filed with the signed written expert medical opinion that the blame for the exposure was directly related to the business or entity being sued. 

Any lawsuit filed on or before August 3, the day Lee announced a special session to consider the liability measure, would be grandfathered in and allowed to go forward. 

Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, argued the measure was vital to protect public and private institutions and companies from frivolous lawsuits.

State Sen. Mike Bell, R-Cleveland (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
State Sen. Mike Bell, R-Cleveland (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

“With this virus and what it has done and what potentially it could do to the businesses, manufacturers, churches, public schools, schools of higher education, nonprofits like our boys and girls club, what it could potentially do is expose all of those entitutes to lawsuits over covid,” Bell said. 

“I don’t know what’s being advertised in your area…But I know there’s at least one law firm in Chattanooga that’s already casting a net, saying if you feel you’ve been harmed by COVID, call us.”

“The goal is to cast that wide net, to sue everyone and settle,” he said.