A bill that would provide immunity from COVID-19 related lawsuits for health care facilities, essential businesses, and employees at those places is hitting many of the same notes in the House of Delegates that it did in the Senate this week.
The House Judiciary Committee adopted Senate Bill 277 in a 16-9 vote without making any changes to the bill since it passed the Senate by a 25-9 margin last Friday, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying by House Judiciary Vice Chairman Tom Fast, R-Fayette, and Judiciary Minority Chairman Chad Lovejoy, D-Cabell.
If it becomes law, SB 277 would shield certain businesses and health care facilities and providers from lawsuits brought against them related to COVID-19.
The bill is titled the “COVID-19 Jobs Protection Act.” Gov. Jim Justice requested the bill.
Supporters of the bill say it will prevent a flood of COVID-19 liability lawsuits by people who have contracted the disease while at a business or in a health care facility. Supporters say the bill will protect health care providers and businesses in the state.
“This is protecting, to me, the business owners, the hospitals,” said Delegate Steve Westfall, R-Jackson. “It was uncharted waters. Nobody knew exactly how to handle this. Nobody knew how to deal with it ... Is it a perfect bill? Probably not. Is it a good bill? I think it is. It is balanced in protections. It is predictable, and it protects what we are trying to protect — the businesses to keep them going.”
The bill’s detractors have said the bill gives equal protection to the good actors, people acting in good faith, and bad actors, people and entities who act recklessly and with intent to cause harm. They said the bill protects actions that are considered criminal in other states that have passed COVID-19 liability laws.
Lovejoy named 10 states and the District of Columbia as places where the state government’s COVID-19 liability law allowed for bad actors to be sued, where West Virginia’s current proposal does not, often saying that citizens in those states have rights that West Virginians will lose if SB 277 becomes law.
He said it made the state an outlier and called the bill “a radical departure from the legal system” by preventing West Virginians from getting made whole if they suffer loses.
“The truth is we’re passing immunity for intending to harm people,” Lovejoy said. “That’s crazy to me, in the law. That’s not balancing things.”
The bill now goes to the House of Delegates for consideration.
Similar to the Senate, the House Judiciary Committee rejected an amendment that would have put a sunset provision in the bill, meaning the effect of the law would end when Gov. Jim Justice’s state of emergency ended. The committee also rejected an amendment that would have clarified that entities and people that recklessly caused death, injury, or other damage, or did so with intent would not be shielded from liability in the law.
If SB 277 becomes law, anyone who suffers loss, damage, physical injury, or death after contracting COVID-19 when they seek medical care for issues unrelated to COVID-19 won’t have any legal recourse — even if there is evidence that a health care employee or facility acted recklessly or with malice.
Likewise, if a person suffers any of those things after contracting COVID-19 at a business or as a result of using personal protective equipment or other items related to preventing the spread of COVID-19, that person could not seek damages against a business, manufacturer, or person who made, sold, or distributed the equipment.
The law allows for employees at health care facilities and essential businesses to file Workers’ Compensation claims if they contract COVID-19 at work and suffer damages, but they would not be allowed to file a lawsuit against their employer.
Fast, who offered amendments, all of which failed, to clarify definitions in the bill and sharpen the scope of it, still voted to advance the bill from the committee, saying it’s important to advance the bill to the full House of Delegates to scrutinize.
“Whatever happens out there, we don’t know,” Fast said. “I just wanted to state we, as a committee, have moved this out for the body to make the ultimate decision.”