Senate Republicans are proposing robust legal protections for U.S. universities, schools and businesses across the country in order to reopen without the threat of COVID-related lawsuits looming overhead, according to a portion of the draft summary of the forthcomingrelief package obtained by CBS News.
The summary, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, includes a laundry list of legal liability protections which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has emphasized as his red line to any future COVID-19 relief support. Included in the list are temporary protection from the trial bar for schools, colleges, charities and business that follow public health guidelines and for frontline medical workers.
"So that people who acted in good faith during this crisis, are not confronted with a second epidemic of lawsuits in the wake of the pandemic that we're already struggling with," McConnell said this week at a Louisville, Kentucky press conference.
He noted, "Unless you were grossly negligent or intentionally engaging in harmful conduct, you should be protected from liability during this process. Why is that necessary -- as of couple of weeks ago there were already 1,100 lawsuits filed an army of trial lawyers out there ready to take advantage of this situation, we cannot get back to normal if we have an epidemic of lawsuits."
The proposal also moves to create an exclusive federal cause of action for personal injuries arising from coronavirus exposure allegedly caused at such establishments, and notes that defendants are liable only if they failed to make reasonable efforts to follow applicable public-health guidelines and committed an act of gross negligence or intentional misconduct.
Long a part of more high-risk activities like skydiving, liability waivers are expected to become commonplace in ordinary settings where social distancing is a challenge to address the kinds of concerns that McConnell is addressing in this new round of legislation.
Even President Trump's re-election campaign has since started requiring people who attend his political rallies to formally agree they won't sue the president or other parties if they contract COVID-19 after attending a gathering. That was the case with his past Tulsa, Oklahoma rally, after which several members of the president's advance team and Secret Service detail contracted coronavirus.
McConnell teased that the theme for the next package to be rolled "in a few weeks" would strictly focus on "liability reform, kids in schools, jobs and healthcare."
"We're not gonna try to rewrite the tort law of every state in America," McConnell noted. "This is a narrowly crafted liability protection that applies only to the coronavirus. Unless you're grossly negligent or intentionally engaging in harmful behavior. You shouldn't have to be penalized by getting sued on top of everything else, so that'll be in there, I can guarantee you."
While waivers could become part of the new normal as long as the pandemic continues, the bar for winning such negligence cases is high because plaintiffs must prove that health mandates were ignored and that their infection is directly linked to the entity being sued, according to the Insurance Information Institute.
According to McConnell, the proposed protections would backdate to December 2019 and last through 2024, or until the expiration of a declaration under the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness (PREP) Act.
While the McConnell maintains that any upcoming coronavirus package would be done in direct consultation with the White House and Senate Democrats, he told reporters he couldn't "comfortably predict we're going to come together and pass it unanimously like we did a few months ago." He cited a more "political" atmosphere in Washington than it was at the height of coronavirus outbreak in March.
"I think we will do something again I think the country needs one last boost," he said.
Alan He contributed reporting