A bit of common sense
Freedom! Liberty! Down with tyranny!
These are the battle cries of flag-waving protesters who rose up within the last month against stay at home orders meant to “flatten the curve” of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The ruckus they stirred up has had an impact. While a majority public opinion still supports these orders, the margin of support has eroded and, paying more attention to pollsters than epidemiologists, governors around the country have issued phased plans to reopen businesses. Thus, here in Wisconsin, Gov. Tony Evers, without citing any medical data, opened up retail stores on Monday as part of his Badger Bounce Back plan.
With workplaces and stores opening up, the country faces a new challenge. What happens if people in these places get sick with COVID-19? Can the sick people sue employers or retailers?
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has his answer to this question. He says absolutely not. McConnell now says he will sideline a proposed $3 trillion bailout of state and county governments unless Congress agrees to business immunity against COVID-19 lawsuits.
“Before we start sending additional money down to states and localities, I want to make sure we protect the people we already sent assistance to, who are going to be set up for an avalanche of lawsuits if we don’t act,” the senator said.
McConnell may be hyperventilating over a non-issue. That’s because employees in states like Wisconsin won’t need to sue their employer should they get COVID-19 as an “occupational illness.” They can just file for workman’s compensation. The senator, too, may be exaggerating how much of an industry COVID-19 lawsuits will turn out to be. Customers will have a devil of a time proving in court they contracted COVID-19 as a result of a business owner’s willful negligence in a certain shop, restaurant or hotel, but, let’s say, not on a bus, on the beach or at a friend’s poker game.
Yet, we can imagine there are some people who McConnell wishes to wall off from COVID-19 lawsuits. It could be the factory owner who, unwilling to provide standard protective gear, demands production resume after large numbers of workers not just get COVID-19, but die of the disease. It could be a retail shop owner who knowingly puts a highly contagious COVID-19 sales employee out on a shop floor to interact with the public.
Maybe McConnell will get his way, but we hope not. We don’t want to see Congress take away people’s right to sue over COVID-19 in some trillion- dollar backroom deal. We think people who are wronged through the negligent acts of others should be able to plead their case before a judge and jury.
In this, we would hope our aforementioned flag-waving protesters would agree with us. The ability to go to court to seek just damages is as much a constitutional right as the right to free speech, assembly and private property. It’s a cornerstone of liberty. We would hope these demonstrators would defend the right of wronged people to go to court, just as they have asked the nation to respect their right to go to work.
The nation finds itself in a tricky spot. It is mid-way through the “hammer” phase of COVID- 19 lockdowns, while experimenting with the “dance” phase of opening up and, then, perhaps, shutting back down the economy based on who gets sick.
We call for a little American common sense. Yes, sure, we can open the economy, but we need to protect the legal rights of citizens and, in doing so, the health of the entire country.
Let’s wave the flag for this central premise: with liberty comes responsibility.
Editorial by Peter Weinschenk, The Record-Review