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Arizona bill would shield businesses from COVID-19 lawsuits

(Photo by Montinique Monroe/Getty Images)

PHOENIX (AP) — Arizona lawmakers on Tuesday advanced legislation offering a broad shield from lawsuits related to COVID-19, saying businesses and health care providers deserve protection for doing their best during a challenging time.

Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee backed the measure in a party-line vote over strong objections from trial lawyers and consumer advocates, who said the measure would reward bad actors who flouted health guidance. Very few lawsuits have been filed related to COVID-19, critics say.

The bill, which has already passed the Senate, would raise the bar for successful pandemic-related lawsuits against businesses, health care providers, nursing homes, nonprofits, governments, churches and schools. Instead of proving negligence by a preponderance of the evidence, plaintiffs would have to prove “gross negligence” or “willful misconduct” by clear and convincing evidence.

That’s a “double whammy” requiring plaintiffs to both show more egregious conduct and meet a higher standard of proof, said Barry Aarons, a lobbyist for Arizona trial lawyers. The legislation effectively creates broad immunity for anyone who can claim some link to the pandemic, he said. A nursing home might claim, for example, it was unable to properly respond to a patient’s stroke or heart attack because of COVID-19.

“I wouldn’t call it protection, I’d call it a ‘get out of jail free’ card,” Aarons said.

Business lobbyists said the measure, SB1377, still creates room for lawsuits against the worst offenders, but the measure’s critics say the bar has been set so high that cases would be virtually impossible to win.

With many nursing homes excluding visitors for a year to contain the coronavirus, many families are in the dark about what’s going on inside. The bill would cut off an opportunity for families to seek redress through the courts before they’re even allowed back in to see their loved ones, said Rep. Diego Rodriguez, D-Phoenix.

“Long-term care facilities must be held responsible when their wrongdoing threatens the health and lives of residents as well as staff,” said Dana Kennedy, Arizona director for the AARP.

There’s no evidence that they’ll face frivolous lawsuits, she added.

Business and medical interest groups have pushed hard for a liability shield since the start of the pandemic. The Arizona bill is one of dozens introduced across the country and in Congress.

“The COVID-19 pandemic provided unique challenges across all industries, so we believe it warrants some heightened level of protection to stop unfair litigation,” said Courtney Coolidge of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce. “But we do want to preserve recourse for bad actors, whether in a nursing home or any other business.”

Lobbyists for doctors and nurses said the measure would protect them after grueling days caring for a crush of COVID-19 patients that, at times, overwhelmed hospitals and pushed them to relax the typical standard of care.

“You have a chance to say ‘thank you’ in a meaningful and lasting way,” Steve Barclay, a lobbyist for doctor groups, told lawmakers.

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