Renewed effort to protect businesses from COVID-19 lawsuits succeeds in special session

CHEYENNE – After a bill to grant immunity to business owners from COVID-19 lawsuits faltered during the first day of the Wyoming Legislature’s special session, a renewed effort to provide those protections was successful in the second and final day of the session Saturday.

On Friday, the Senate approved a proposal in a standalone bill to protect businesses from any lawsuit brought by people exposed to COVID-19. However, the House did not take up a mirror version of the bill, leaving the legislation with virtually no chance of winning final approval by the end of the session.

But the concept was revived on day two.

Members of the Senate amended one of the other bills to expand existing laws on civil immunity. Because the amendment was part of a bill also being considered by the House, members of both chambers met in a joint conference committee Saturday to settle their differences.

During debate throughout both days, legislators in favor of the proposal repeatedly said the measure was essential to restoring business owners’ confidence in reopening.

“The Senate was very clear in their hope to help small business owners as soon as possible,” Senate Vice President Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, told House members in the conference committee Saturday.

“How do we protect our businesses owners from yet another crisis in the middle of a crisis?”

Some who were generally supportive of the idea, however, had issues with how the protections were inserted at the last minute. The Senate adopted the amendment late Friday night, when just a handful of people were watching the livestream of the legislative meeting.

“I don’t like to see really substantive issues come in as third-reading amendments in the dark,” Rep. Sue Wilson, R-Cheyenne, said to the conference committee. “I typically vote against that just on the process side of things.”

After hitting an impasse, the committee was able to find a compromise by amending current statute. The amended law, which applies only during public emergencies, provides immunity to people who follow the orders of the state public health officer. The Legislature’s vote explicitly extended those protections to businesses, too.

“If you are a business owner who is in good faith honoring and following best practices as advised by health orders, you are given full immunity,” Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, told her fellow senators on Saturday. “This is not a perfect solution, but I think it’s the right solution in order to get (the entire bill) passed.”

The standard of acting in “good faith” wasn’t as black and white as businesses might like it to be, Nethercott admitted, but more work will be done on the issue soon. The Joint Judiciary Committee, which Nethercott co-chairs, will likely hear from judges
and attorneys on the issue during its meeting next week.

Concerns from the House of Representatives momentarily jeopardized a wide-ranging bill that, among other things, sets up a program to help landlords stave off evictions and expands the state’s workers’ compensation program to allow employees to make claims if they contract COVID-19.

Lawmakers were able to avoid such a fiasco, though many members of the House couldn’t stomach the bill with the inclusion of the liability shield. After about an hour of debate on the compromise, in which multiple Cheyenne representatives spoke against it, the House adopted the amended bill by a 38-20 vote.

Similar proposals have been gaining steam in other states and at the federal level. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has been pushing a similar bill in Congress, and the Utah Legislature passed a similar measure during its virtual special session last month.

While lawmakers aimed to protect businesses reopening to the public from lawsuits, it remains unclear how much of an issue that has been so far.

As of last week, only 45 of 1,018 coronavirus-related lawsuits in the U.S. were personal injury or medical malpractice cases against a business, according to a Reuters article published Friday.

With the state Legislature likely to have another special session in late June, further changes to the liability statutes could be added during that second, longer session.