Since the pandemic began, Florida has seen more than 1.6 million cases of Covid, more than 26,000 of them resulting in fatalities (at the time of this writing). Unfortunately, the state’s lawmakers, along with Governor DeSantis, are again considering legislation to limit lawsuits against businesses that may have put employees and/or customers at risk. This is a bad idea for Floridians.
Background: Lawsuits Put A Check on Businesses That Cut Corners to Turn A Profit
Under current laws, businesses are required to maintain a reasonably safe environment for workers and visitors (the public). The Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires that employers maintain a workplace “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm” to employees (similar laws apply to guests in businesses open to the public). If the business fails to do so, this can result in liability for the company.
For example, let’s say a grocery store manager knows their roof leaks but makes no effort to repair the leak, clean up the puddle, or even put up a CAUTION WET FLOOR sign. Then if a customer slips and falls, the store could be liable. And why shouldn’t they be? The customer may now have months of painful rehabilitation ahead of them due to a preventable injury, and piles of medical bills to pay. If the store was negligent, they should be required to provide the customer with compensation.
The same is true of Covid-19. Businesses that are currently open should be following CDC guidelines for preventing the spread of the pandemic, including asking guests and employees to wear masks, frequent disinfection protocols, and providing PPE to workers. Sadly, by September of 2020, more than 7,000 healthcare workers had died of Covid according to Forbes; the numbers are likely much higher now. Unfortunately, some healthcare facilities have failed to provide appropriate PPE for workers, which in some cases may have resulted in more infections (for both employees and patients).
Workers in essential businesses like grocery stores may also have had inadequate protection, especially if store management failed to enforce or even have a mask policy for guests. Many people have had this sort of experience: You go in a store to get your groceries, and notice many of the other customers are not wearing masks. You ask to speak with the manager, who shrugs and says, “What are we going to do, put the mask on for them?” Did you feel safe shopping there? Probably not.
You may have considered going elsewhere, but not everyone has the time, money, or access to transportation to visit a second store. Maybe you just got your groceries as fast as you could and hoped for the best. Sadly, these situations are not uncommon, and can lead to an increased risk of contracting Covid-19.
Are Covid-19 Lawsuits “Frivolous”? Lawmakers Say So
Proponents of “business immunity” from Covid lawsuits claim that companies need to be protected from “frivolous” lawsuits. However, a recent report estimated there were only about 1,000-1,500 federal or state workplace lawsuits related to the pandemic nationally in 2020, more than half involving firings or layoffs as businesses reduced staff. Only about 200 were related to workplace safety, although it’s likely that far more than 200 people were exposed to the virus at work.
Unfortunately, Governor DeSantis and some other state lawmakers are intent on passing legislation that would reduce legal liability for businesses if a patron contracts Covid-19. This leaves vulnerable people impacted by a business’ negligence with little or no legal recourse. “Covid-19 immunity,” as it is sometimes called, would encourage unsafe business practices among business owners, like skimping on disinfectant products or PPE.
The ability to file a lawsuit against a negligent business is the public’s only guaranteed constitutional remedy for justice after being harmed.
Who Will Protect Vulnerable Populations, Like Nursing Home Residents?
The biggest question Floridans should be concerned about regarding this Covid-19 lawsuit immunity legislation proposal is: What about vulnerable populations, like nursing homes and long-term care facility residents?
If a nursing home fails to protect their patients and a resident contracts Covid-19 and dies as a result – why shouldn’t the management and the owners of the nursing home be held accountable? Should immunity extend so far as to indemnify any behavior the management and staff at a nursing home do or don’t do to protect their residents? What incentive exists for the operators to do the right thing, especially in an industry in which doing the wrong this is so prevalent because it’s more profitable?
These are tough questions Florida’s lawmakers and Governor DeSantis should be asking themselves before they jam through a Covid-19 lawsuit immunity bills that protects and allows bad players to act on perverse incentives, putting livelihoods and public health at risk for their corporate profits.