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Liability protection is necessary as part of any COVID-19 relief bill

Businesses and organizations that are acting in good faith to protect their employees from getting COVID-19 while keeping their doors open should be protected from potential litigation.

Last week, the Assembly voted to approve a new COVID-19 relief package that included liability protections. On Monday, the Senate introduced its own COVID-19 package markedly different from the one passed in the Assembly, but still containing the liability protections.

According to the American Bar Association, business owners are concerned about the prospect of employees or customers contracting, or even allegedly contracting, the COVID-19 virus while on business premises and how that could translate into liability lawsuits that might cripple, perhaps fatally, a business’s ability to recover from the devastating economic impact of the virus. In response to those concerns, business and industry groups are pushing state and federal lawmakers to consider protective legislation that would bar lawsuits for COVID-19-related claims.

Over the past year, businesses across the state have made significant investment in keeping their customers and staff members as safe as possible. Protecting employees and customers from harm makes sense both morally and economically. This is especially true in small businesses where an outbreak could entirely shut down a business.

Opponents to liability shields argue that it is already difficult for those bringing lawsuits to show they contracted the virus at a specific place and time versus being exposed elsewhere. However, as anyone who has been involved in a lawsuit knows, the cost involved with defending yourself can be crippling.

As Wisconsin Manufactures and Commerce notes, without liability protections organizations, including businesses, schools, universities, non-profits and others could face costly litigation – even though they did everything right to minimize the spread of COVID-19.

It is an important distinction that the law, in both the Assembly and Senate versions, does not provide protection for entities that participated in reckless or wanton conduct, or intentional misconduct. The bad actors, such as management at the Waterloo, Iowa Tyson pork processing facility who had an office pool on how many workers would get COVID-19, would not be covered by the shield as proposed in Wisconsin.

Running a business is stressful in the best of times. Running a business during a global pandemic raises that stress level to astronomical levels. The state legislature is right in supporting liability shields for businesses and entities who make good-faith efforts and Gov. Tony Evers should sign such a bill into law.