by Vivian Jones
Gov. Bill Lee plans to call a special legislative session to take up COVID-19 liability protection that Tennessee lawmakers debated but did not pass last month.
While an executive order Lee signed Wednesday limits liability for licensed health care workers responding to the coronavirus, it leaves businesses, local governments and school districts across the state open to COVID-19-related lawsuits.
“There is an urgent need for broad COVID-19 liability protection,” Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, tweeted last week. “[Executive Order No. 53] is a much-needed step but across the board protection is necessary. Businesses need these protections to stay open, schools need them to re-open and local governments need them to continue providing essential services. That can only be done through legislation.”
House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, also shared his support for the governor’s executive order and signaled support for continued consideration of the issue.
“I appreciate [Gov. Lee] issuing an executive order to protect certain sectors of the medical community going forward,” Lamberth said in a tweet. “I expect conversations will continue on liability protection that protects other businesses in a way that is in compliance with the Constitution.”
Legislatures in five of Tennessee’s eight neighboring states have passed COVID-19-related liability protections in various forms: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi and North Carolina.
Tennessee’s business community said it’s time to join them.
“It is critical for the Tennessee General Assembly to convene soon to pass COVID-19 safe harbor legislation because businesses, nonprofits, schools and churches are operating in an uncertain, higher-risk environment,” said Jim Brown, Tennessee state director of the National Federation of Independent Business. “There’s unfinished business for small business, and we continue to urge a special session to adopt sorely needed protections.”
In a letter urging Lee to call a special session last week, the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce said businesses are struggling to make ends meet.
“For weeks, businesses have been calling for essential safe harbor protections in order to have the confidence to remain operational throughout this uncertain time. Those protections have yet to be provided,” the Chamber of Commerce wrote. “Throughout the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, businesses have retrofit, repurposed, closed and/or reopened. The Tennessee Chamber of Commerce is disappointed by past attempts to implement common sense safe harbor protections that simultaneously promote commonly accepted governmental public health protocols.”
As school districts make plans to bring students back this fall, educators also said there is work to be done, as school districts, schools and educators face liability issues.
“Whether students return to brick and mortar, online, or a combination of the two, inevitably some person or organization will very likely bring a legal action against them, which will subsequently add to the cost of recovery from this pandemic,” said J.C. Bowman, executive director and CEO of Professional Educators of Tennessee. “Our fear is that some district or school may choose to simply not reopen if this matter remains unresolved.”
The Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents also has said it will work with the Legislature on the liability protection issue.
In considering what COVID-19 liability protection will look like for Tennessee, however, Sen. Sara Kyle, D-Memphis, said it’s important to keep workers’ health in mind, as well as businesses, and guard against making lawsuits inaccessible to those who need it.
“Worker health is public health,” Kyle said. “Given that state officials are failing to investigate and protect workers when it’s needed, workers should be able to use every available tool to hold employers accountable for following basic precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”
Kyle also said state law already makes it difficult for workers to hold employers accountable through civil lawsuits.
“The scope of what has been proposed in this corporate immunity bill is too sweeping and unprecedented,” she said. “It offers the same legal immunity for bad employers who cut corners and endanger their workers for short-term profit as it does for businesses that play by the rules. This uncomfortable reality sets up a race-to-the-bottom for workplace safety.”
Lee has not yet called for a special session or specified the scope of legislative consideration.
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Vivian Jones is a staff reporter at The Center Square.