WASHINGTON — In early July, U.S. Reps. Garret Graves (R-La.) and Enrique Roberto "Henry" Cuellar (D-Texas) introduced the Get America Back to Work Act, a new bipartisan bill that, if passed, would provide liability protections to businesses that took precautionary measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. NACS has expressed its support for the legislation.
The bill would protect any person, business, nonprofit or health care professional from being sued provided they took reasonable steps to comply with the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or appropriate health authorities. This legislation comes as various businesses put the brakes on reopening as pandemic-related restrictions ease since frivolous claims may force them into bankruptcy, the bill states.
"Some small businesses might feel at risk should they open their doors. For most small businesses, just one frivolous tort claim over the spread of COVID-19 could mean the difference in weathering this crisis versus closing their doors forever,” said Graves.
"As we begin to reopen, it is critical our small businesses who follow CDC health and safety standards are given protections to stay open and serve their community,” said Cuellar. “This bipartisan legislation will enact liability protections for businesses that adopt safety protocols to shield them from frivolous lawsuits. Furthermore, these much-needed legal protections also prioritize the health of workers if businesses show gross negligence or blatant indifference to these standards. As a former small business owner, I am committed to fighting for well-being of our small businesses, workers and rebuild our strong economy.”
The legislation would be effective from Jan. 1. 2020, to 18 months after the end of the public health emergency declaration. The liability protections do not apply to individuals being sued who showed criminal misconduct, gross negligence, reckless misconduct or a conscious flagrant indifference to the rights or safety of the individual harmed.
“In effort to ensure that consumers are able to continue receiving the goods and supplies needed for daily living, we must protect those that are serving on the front line as they adhere to the safety precautions recommended by the administration and CDC,” said Kelisha Garrett, executive director of the Louisiana Chamber of Commerce Foundation. “In doing so, we must also identify ways to limit the liability and exposure faced by business owners and providers on a daily basis.”
NACS has advocated for liability protection since the start of the pandemic. On May 12, the association joined a coalition of organizations whose members have been deemed essential businesses by the Department of Homeland Security. The group—comprised of 36 associations—submitted a letter for the record to the U.S. Judiciary Committee underlining their support for liability protections.
That same day, Kevin Smartt, CEO of the Bonham, Texas-based Kwik Chek convenience-store chain and NACS treasurer, spoke before the Judiciary Committee, requesting reasonable liability protections for essential businesses. At the hearing, Smarrt asked the Judiciary Committee to consider protecting essential businesses from claims that COVID-19 was contracted by a customer or employee on the premises. He also requested the committee ensure the protections cover employers who take precautions, as well as tailor liability protections so that they still allow true bad actors to be sued. Finally, he asked the committee to consider separating any questions of compensation for people who get sick from the question of whether and when businesses should be liable.
Smartt said that threat of unfounded lawsuits alleging that someone contracted COVID-19 on premises is one of the top issues facing the convenience-store industry today.
“While it’s extremely difficult to prove where COVID-19 was contracted, we know that some plaintiffs’ attorneys will look to take advantage of the crisis and file claims against businesses who stayed open,” he said.
Founded in 1961 as the National Association of Convenience Stores, Alexandria, Va.-based NACS represents more than 1,500 retailer and 1,600 supplier members from more than 50 countries.