The West Virginia Legislature completed its annual 60-day legislative session Saturday without any outbreaks of COVID-19, despite some lawmakers flouting rules set in the Senate and the House of Delegates requiring them to wear face coverings at all times.
COVID-19 also was the catalyst for some of the legislation lawmakers considered during the session.
Here’s where a few of those bills ended up by the end of the session.
On March 19, Gov. Jim Justice signed Senate Bill 277, which the Legislature named the COVID-19 Jobs Protection Act.
The law, which went into effect on March 11, limits West Virginians’ ability to file lawsuits against businesses or health care entities for injury, death, or other damages they’ve suffered because of COVID-19.
Supporters of the law said it is pro-business and pro-health care provider and will prevent a flood of COVID-19 lawsuits, particularly by people who have suffered health issues after contracting COVID-19 at a business or health care facility.
People who didn’t support the law said it had good intentions in providing protection for people acting in good faith who might make mistakes, but it provided too much protection for entities that act recklessly or without the best interests of employees, patients and customers in mind.
The bill was proposed by Gov. Jim Justice.
Under the law, anyone who suffers loss, damage, physical injury or death after contracting COVID-19 at any business in West Virginia or when they seek medical care for issues unrelated to COVID-19 won’t have a legal recourse — even if there is evidence that a health care employee or facility acted recklessly.
The law will allow for lawsuits to advance if there’s evidence a person or entity acted with malice, meaning someone intended to hurt, kill or cause other damage.
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, or their estate, 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. If those claims aren’t successful, they can file a lawsuit in circuit court.
Attempts to challenge governor’s executive authority fall short
The pandemic paired with an almost 13-month state of emergency due to COVID-19 led lawmakers throughout the country to review the authority governors have during states of emergency or preparedness.
In West Virginia, the debate about executive authority was expansive and contentious, ultimately resulting in the death of a bill that would have given the Legislature more control in states of emergency or preparedness.
By the time a six-member conference committee met on April 2, legislators in both chambers had argued about whether House Bill 2003 was an overextension of legislative authority and whether the bill would have been applicable to the current state of emergency.
House Bill 2003 originally put a stop clock of sorts on states of emergency or preparedness and would have required the Legislature to extend them. The House had intended for the bill to end the current state of emergency and argued about whether its language was clear.
When the bill went to the Senate, senators took out provisions requiring the Legislature to intervene. Instead, they required the governor only to submit reports to the Senate president, House speaker and the Joint Committee on Government and Finance to keep states of emergency or preparedness in effect.
The Senate’s version of the bill also stated that it would not affect the COVID-19 state of emergency.
Members in both chambers, where Republicans hold supermajorities, refused to cede to the others’ position during the April 2 meeting.
The House adopted House Concurrent Resolution 104 on April 7. The resolution would have ended certain executive orders Gov. Justice issued during the state of emergency, but the Senate sent the bill to its Rules Committee, where it remained on the last day of the session.
On April 7 Justice signed House Bill 2014, which will limit his spending authority for any unexpected federal money to $150 million.
Under the law, the Legislature will reconvene to allocate any federal money more than $150 million.
West Virginia received $1.25 billion from the federal CARES Act.