Getting ahead of the wave: With lawsuits on the rise, Missouri Chamber fights to curb frivolous COVID-19 litigation
It’s not hard to see it coming.
While Missouri continues to confront the immediate challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, another concern is rising on the horizon: an incoming wave of predatory coronavirus lawsuits.
Since March, more than 1,000 COVID-19 lawsuits have been filed against employers across the nation. It’s unclear just how large the wave will grow as thousands of suits likely remain unfiled — especially in places like Missouri where litigants can wait years to sue.
In response, many states have enacted some form of shield for employers against these suits. But to date, Missouri employers remain completely exposed.
The risk is easy to understand.
If an employee or customer believes they contracted COVID-19 at a business, they could file a suit against that business seeking damages.
In addition, if a business answered the urgent call to shift operations to produce personal protective equipment or hand sanitizer during times of shortage, that business could be sued over the effectiveness of those products.
The pandemic has also created many new creative ways for attorneys to target health care providers and schools.
Today in Missouri, there is nothing to stop suits like these from going forward.
The Missouri Chamber spent the better part of 2020 sounding the alarm about this issue and rallying grassroots support for action. Thus far, nearly 800 companies and individuals have co-signed the Missouri Chamber’s letter requests employers be protected from opportunistic lawsuits. Hundreds of business people have sent emails to the capitol calling for action.
Hermann Oak Leather Co. in St. Louis was one of the employers that signed the Missouri Chamber’s letter calling for action. President Shepley Hermann said all of his company’s workers were paid full wages during their spring furlough, but bringing them back left his business wide open for litigation.
“Without liability protection, this covid pandemic will give new meaning to the term, ‘no good deed goes unpunished,’” wrote Hermann.
Similar concerns are felt at businesses across the state.
“We have worked hard to stay educated and implement all the precautions that we can to prevent the spread of this virus. It has worked so far, but it would be devastating to lose it all due to a frivolous lawsuit,” wrote another co-signer from Symmetry Machining Services in Nevada, Mo.
The statistics easily illustrate why COVID-19 lawsuits are keeping employers up at night. Just look at the graphic with this story to see how fast these cases are proliferating.
“We must do everything we can to help our businesses, schools and health care facilities safely open — and remain open — so our economy can recover,” said Daniel P. Mehan, Missouri Chamber president and CEO. “When these organizations follow public health guidelines, they should not have to face crippling COVID-19 lawsuits.”
Gov. Mike Parson and leaders in the Missouri General Assembly have voiced support for passing COVID-19 lawsuit protections. Lawmakers jump-started discussions in December by holding a hearing on a COVID-19 liability bill.
As the legislative session begins in January, the Missouri Chamber is strongly urging lawmakers to pass emergency legislation as their first priority.
Such a bill would help invigorate the state’s economic recovery, ensuring employers could feel more confident in reopening and bringing employees back to work. Health care providers and educators also have trial attorneys’ targets on their backs — and the legislation being pursued by the Missouri Chamber would shield them as well.
“None of these groups should be penalized for their efforts to respond to a declared state of emergency,” Gov. Parson said. “They must be able to continue operating and serving the public without risk of unnecessary and frivolous claims.”
Yet passing the bill won’t come easy. Trial attorney lobbyists are already spreading talking points in Jefferson City claiming that a law would give all organizations a free pass to flout safety guidelines.
However, the COVID-19 liability law being pursued by the Missouri Chamber would not protect bad actors — only those who have followed relevant guidelines to keep employees and customers safe.
“I want to make it clear that we are not asking lawmakers to protect businesses that ignore government orders and defy public health recommendations. But companies that are taking the necessary precautions should not be unjustly dragged into court,” said Mehan.
It’s going to take a united effort to convince Missouri lawmakers that there is an urgent need to pass this legislation.
Please continue to watch mochamber.com for ways to contact your lawmaker and let them know that action is needed to stop the wave of COVID-19 litigation.