We stopped the wave: With victory over COVID-19 lawsuits, employers can reopen with greater confidence
From Missouri Business magazine
The Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry came into the 2021 session sounding the alarm about a major threat to the state’s economic recovery — a rising wave of COVID-19 lawsuits.
After a key late session push, the Missouri Chamber succeeded as lawmakers passed legislation to protect employers from being dragged into court by trial attorneys hoping to cash in on the pandemic.
The new law is urgently needed as trial attorneys have been working overtime to convert the pandemic into a massive payday for themselves.
A report at the beginning of the year counted more than 5,800 COVID-related complaints that have been filed across the country — a number expected to rise dramatically as trial attorneys advertise to recruit plaintiffs for new COVID-19 lawsuits.
As always, employers were squarely in the crosshairs. While people became ill with coronavirus, trial attorneys began searching for ways to pin the infections on things that happened in workplaces. Such accusations could form the basis for an unprecedented number of liability lawsuits around the country.
This would significantly imperil our economic rebound from the pandemic, causing businesses to think twice about reopening due to the potential for legal jeopardy.
The Missouri Chamber noted this threat very early in the pandemic, calling for urgent action to stop opportunistic COVID-19 litigation as part of its Uniting for Recovery plan published in April of 2020.
The Missouri Chamber then successfully urged Gov. Mike Parson to call a special session on COVID liability. Those early discussions helped familiarize lawmakers with the issue and laid the groundwork for success during the 2021 Legislative Session. Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer (R-Parkville) championed the cause in the legislature by sponsoring Senate Bill 51, which included language to stop COVID-19 lawsuits. Sen. Bill White (R-Joplin) and Rep. John Wiemann (R-O-Fallon) also played key roles in the bill’s passage.
Passage of this bill became the Missouri Chamber’s number one priority for the legislative session.
The focus on this issue followed employer concern about being left exposed to these lawsuits while they were trying to reopen and keep their businesses alive during the pandemic. When the Missouri Chamber wrote a letter calling for action on COVID-19 lawsuits, roughly 800 employers and Missourians joined as cosigners.
However, trial attorneys and other interest groups worked actively during the session to stop Senate Bill 51. Misinformation about the bill was widely spread online and on social media — complicating the legislature’s work to pass the bill quickly.
In response, the Missouri Chamber continued to stress the need for protection as Missouri reopened. The risk was especially serious in Missouri, where courts and court rules have long had an anti-business slant. In fact, our state’s statute of limitations allows plaintiffs to wait several years before filing a suit. Thus, if employers were left exposed to COVID-19 litigation, it could have been years before Missouri could even begin to assess the quantity and scope of the litigation caused by the pandemic.
But fortunately, after more than a year of work, the legislation was finally passed on May 14 and sent to Gov. Parson to be signed into law.
Once enacted, the law should help Missouri employers feel confident as they reopen and power our economic recovery.
“The threat of this litigation has loomed over every employer in Missouri. It has long been clear that we needed to protect our employers as they seek to reopen,” said Daniel P. Mehan, President and CEO of the Missouri Chamber. “With this bill now passed, employers should have greater confidence as they get Missourians back to work. Once enacted, employers in Missouri can operate knowing they are safe from the kind of COVID-19 litigation that is spreading rapidly across the country. We thank the many business leaders from across Missouri who stood with us to fight for this issue. It took a truly united front to pass this critical bill and finally put these protections into law.”