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'We are exposed right now,' businesses seeking COVID lawsuit protection

Posted at 6:07 PM, Feb 18, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-18 19:07:24-05

LINCOLN, Neb. (KMTV) — "Some level of protection" is a good encapsulation of what the business community is seeking.

“We just want something out there. Right now we are exposed, we want something that will be able to provide some level of protection,” said Jerry Stillmock, representing the National Federation of Independent Business.

That's why over a dozen groups and school organizations are supportive of Sen. Tom Briese’s bill that would temporarily change the law to require a higher standard of proof for people seeking damages in a lawsuit.

Those in support say, the bill does not protect against bad actors and would help businesses fully reopen.

“To be able to get the economy moving again, get people employed again and not be in fear that if somebody contracts COVID within your premises, that you’re going to be hit with lawsuits,” said Mark Schorr, with the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce.

If the bill was passed, somebody suing a business or school would need to prove gross negligence or willful misconduct, which is higher than the current standard.

One lawyer said a business could lose anywhere from $30,000-100,000 in legal fees to defend themselves.

“There are tremendous costs involved in defending claims of COVID liability,” said Schorr.

“This bill deals with the threat of a possibility of what is to come,” said supporter of the bill Dallas Jones.

The threat of a possibility is what Sen. Steve Lathrop latched onto. He proposed his own, broader bill because he wanted to have a conversation about whether something is needed.

He came away from the hearing unconvinced.

“It’s concerning that we’re here for the fear of the threat of the possibility and somebody is creating that fear,” said Lathrop.

He and other opponents pointed to the fact there are currently no COVID-related lawsuits in Nebraska targeting businesses for misconduct.

Shayla Reed also said current law protects businesses already and said it takes into account the fact that we’re in a pandemic.

“So something that may have been negligent five years ago in a nursing home may not constitute negligence during a pandemic,” said Reed.

Reed, who specializes in defending victims of nursing home abuse, said current law already makes it tough to win in court and may be nearly impossible with this bill.

“I just think this really sells out, especially nursing home residents, without a compelling reason,” said Reed.

In defending his bill, Briese said, as older folks get vaccinated, they need to ensure nursing homes stay open.

“I think the narrative going forward is probably going to change of COVID exposure in nursing homes to the financial stability in our nursing homes, especially out in rural Nebraska,” said Briese.

Well over a dozen states have passed similar bills in their own state legislatures. Republicans in Congress are looking to do similar legislation on a national level, but no agreement has been made.