COVID-19 Liability Relief for Businesses, Sometimes “Done” Isn’t Better Than “Perfect”

COVID-19 Liability Relief for Businesses, Sometimes “Done” Isn’t Better Than “Perfect”

We are a “get’er done” society. We embrace challenges – and applaud those who complete them promptly. Nothing exemplifies that attitude more than creating not one, but two COVID-19 vaccines, in less than a year. Another example has been funding relief for America’s businesses shuttered by the Pandemic.

From the $2.2 trillion CARES Act funding quickly passed in April, to the tentative deal for “just” $900 billion in the pending bill, our leaders have acted quickly to try to help our citizens and businesses get back on their feet, after a knockout punch no one saw coming.

But sometimes done is not “better than perfect”?

The aphorism about the benefits of completing a task, rather than obsessing over the failure to “dot i’s and cross t’s”, falls down when the “i’s and t’s” turn out to be just as important in the long run as the completed task.

The 5,593 page Consolidated Appropriations Act 2021 left out liability protection for employers, schools and businesses, despite many calls for such relief. A similar liability limit bill was vetoed in my state, Pennsylvania, for protecting even firms that ignored public safety requirements. Why should such concerns matter so much, when balanced against the overwhelming demand for speedy relief, both financial and legal?

Consider the tragedies of Pennsylvania meat plant employees, who died of COVID-19 early in the Pandemic, and of their employers who were sued for failing to prevent their deaths. Other similar cases have been reported, particularly for health care workers. While the facts will be determined in the litigation, the allegations are predictable. The employers claim that employees were infected even though they had protective equipment. If the employers complied with all applicable safety rules, at the time, what more could they have done?

Why should an employer pay for an illness it couldn’t prevent, even though it tried, using all of the public health guidance available? Of course, those rules have evolved as science has learned more about the virus. But no one wants to hold employers to a standard they couldn’t have known at the time of the alleged violation.

Or do they?

Whether due to adverse publicity, a genuine desire to compensate the family of a fallen employee, or a cold, liability carrier’s cost benefit analysis of the expense of settlement against the slow burn of legal fees, counsel for an injured or deceased employee will often invest in lengthy litigation, in search of a large award.

It is easy to understand why the possibility of future lawsuits became less pressing to lawmakers than the actual needs of individuals and businesses alike for cash, whether to pay bills, or simply to stay alive in the hope for a “new post-vaccine normal”. Yet the cost of defending claims for harm allegedly caused by COVID-19, both spurious and legitimate, could be overwhelming – especially after businesses have already invested heavily in personal protective equipment and facilities modifications to try to stop the spread of the disease.

Moreover, keeping up with the flood of safety guidance from many sources during the Pandemic, especially as it has evolved with understanding of the virus, has been a challenge for those focusing on that question, much less for a business owner struggling to stay open and pay employees.

From a different perspective, will anyone remember the cash stimulus benefits after paying legal fees to defend claims from injured or deceased employees? If the philosophy of our relief efforts has been “no questions asked” compensation for businesses harmed by the virus, should funding for its human victims perhaps have been included as well?  After all, our society does compensate some harms without fault, such as auto accidents (in some states), or injuries caused by vaccines.

Such a compensation system would not multiply the tragedy of an employee death from COVID-19 to include the collapse of the firm that could not prevent it, especially if the employer tried to protect its employees under all safety guidelines.

(Of course, employers which cavalierly ignore safety rules should not get any liability protection.)

To paraphrase Martin Luther King, no one is healed until we are all healed, individuals and businesses alike. When Congress returns in January, balanced COVID-19 liability limitation should be as high on its agenda as stimulus checks for individuals.


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