Top NJ Dems warm to legal immunity for business owners from COVID-19 suits

Daniel J. Munoz//June 11, 2020//

Top NJ Dems warm to legal immunity for business owners from COVID-19 suits

Daniel J. Munoz//June 11, 2020//

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Several of New Jersey’s top Democrats have begun showing support for the concept of providing businesses with legal immunity against COVID-19 lawsuits, as the state rolls back restrictions across the board on when businesses can open their doors.

A bill put forward by several Republicans in late May – Assembly Bill 4189 – would grant immunity to businesses against any claims stemming from COVID-19.

That means that if you became infected, and believe you contracted it while at your place of work, or a restaurant or store where you visited, the bill would clamp down on the kind of legal actions you could take against the business.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney at the 2020 State of the State address in Trenton on Jan. 14, 2020.

“If you followed all the guidance and you did everything humanly possible, why are you going to be punished if you’ve done everything you’ve got to do?” Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District, said at a June 9 webinar jointly hosted by the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce and the New Jersey Business & Industry Association.

Gov. Phil Murphy lifted the state’s stay-at-home order on June 9.

On June 15, the state will enter “Stage 2” of its reopening after more than two months in a virtual state lockdown on public gatherings, nonessential travel and the operation of most brick and mortar businesses. This coming Monday, bars and restaurants will be able to open for outdoor dining only, while non-essential retail can operate at 50 percent capacity with social distancing – a 6-foot distance between everyone in the store.

The question of how to reopen businesses on the one hand, while protecting the health of employees and customers, and on the other hand, making sure business owners are not subject to an onslaught of legal actions is playing out on a national scale as well.

“Why would I open up my business if I’m going to open up to being sued?” Sweeney added.

Nationally, the White House and U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, said that such legal immunity for businesses would be a major concession in exchange for federal support to states such as New Jersey, which is seeing a $10 billion revenue shortfall as a result of the COVID-19 recession, and massive expenses to combat the pandemic.

Gov. Phill Murphy holds his daily COVID-19 briefing in Trenton on June 9, 2020.
Gov. Phill Murphy holds his daily COVID-19 briefing in Trenton on June 9, 2020. – ANN-MARIE CARUSO, GANNETT

“I can appreciate the fact that if you’re a restaurant, by example, and you’re about to take this step, that it weighs on you and I can appreciate that,” Murphy said June 9 at his daily COVID-19 press briefing at the Trenton War Memorial.

“[T]he concern is an understandable one, given the environment, the extraordinary environment that we’re in,” he added.

On April 14, Murphy approved a controversial and similarly-natured bill granting legal immunity to hospitals and health care providers, as the pandemic reached its peak and forced medical workers to grapple with life and death decisions for patients because of increasing ventilator and staffing shortages.

That bill provides civil and criminal immunity against health care professionals so they would not be liable for any injury or death of a COVID-19 patient under their care.

Business officials have been widely supportive of legal protection for business owners.

Chrissy Buteas, chief government affairs officer, New Jersey Business & Industry Association.

“We want to make sure a business is not strangled with a frivolous lawsuit,” Chrissy Buteas, the NJBIA’s chief government affairs officer, said on Tuesday. “The liability protection is critical if a business adheres to everything that the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] puts out.”

Businesses that enforce the requirements for social distancing and face coverings, frequently sanitize the establishment, perform temperature checks and screenings to weave out potentially infected employees and then send them home if sick, and comply with the governor’s executive order, shouldn’t be hit with a lawsuit, proponents argue.

“If someone grossly ignored those things, well then they should be sued,” the Senate President added.

Labor rights groups and progressive activists, nonetheless, were anxious that the bill, should it be enacted would threaten the health and safety of workings, leaving them with little recourse should an employer fail to meet their obligations.

Dena Mottola Jaborska, associate director at the worker advocacy group New Jersey Citizen Action, cautioned that the bill would offer blanket immunity and “allow for recklessness on the part of business owners.”

“This bill and all immunity bills are a rollback of worker and public protections, letting employers who fail to operate healthy and safe workplaces, off the hook from any accountability,” Jaborska said.