JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Businesses, churches, schools, and health care providers will be protected from lawsuits regarding the pandemic under a new law in Missouri.
Back in January, Governor Mike Parson made COVID liability protection a top priority for lawmakers. Parson said Wednesday at the signing for Senate Bill 51, the pandemic was one of the most “dramatic emergencies” to ever hit the state. The new law exempts business owners and health care providers from being sued for spreading COVID unless it can be proven by clear and convincing evidence.
“Every aspect has been affected by this [the pandemic] and the good news is we’ve kind of hung together in this state,” Parson said. “We’re trying to get through it, we still continue to have our ups and downs with it.”
The same day Parson signed the COVID liability bill into law, Missouri recorded more than 1,000 new COVID cases for the first time in nearly five months. Some counties in the state are seeing a rising number of the Delta variant.
“Of course, we’re seeing a surge in the virus recently and so I actually think this legislation is going to become more meaningful in the future,” Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer (R-Parkville) said.
The Kansas City-area senator sponsored the bill during the session, which was finally passed by the General Assembly hours before the Friday night deadline back in May.
“It covers both consumer actions as well as actions from employees, so anybody that would be on the premises of a business would be covered by this legislation,” Luetkemeyer said.
The law prohibits COVID-19 lawsuits against businesses or spreading the virus unless the person suing can prove they were exposed and sickened by COVID and that the business engaged in “reckless or willful misconduct.”
“I talked to a lot of superintendents. a lot of school administrators, one of the things that was driving the decision making around the state to not reopen schools was the fact of the possibility of liability,” Luetkemeyer said.
Religious organizations will also be shielded from COVID-19 exposure lawsuits unless “intentional misconduct” can be proven.
“We saw churches around the state being shuttered,” Luetkemeyer said. “Peoples’ First Amendment religious liberties being trampled upon and one of the critical components of this bill is we offer very good protections for religious institutions to make sure that churches are able to stay open.”
The legislation also protects health care providers like nursing homes from malpractice lawsuits
“Hospitals are fearful of lawsuits,” Luetkemeyer said. “Making sure that we protect those people who are doing their best to keep us safe while at the same time striking that balance and making sure that we hold bad actors accountable.”
Parson said SB 51 will protect the more than 200 businesses who worked during the pandemic to produce PPE-like masks.
“Businesses in this state retooled their companies to be able to help us at a time frankly, probably one of our most dramatic emergencies we’ve had that I can remember in a long time,” Parson said. “The last thing we need to do is punish anybody for trying to help in the middle of a crisis or a pandemic.”
During session, some businesses testified in opposition to the bill, saying it brings lawsuits upon them.
According to a national law firm that tracks COVID-related lawsuits, Hunton Andrews Kurth, there have been 141 cases filed in Missouri since March 2020.