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Consumer Groups Warn Against Shielding Corporate Giants From Covid-19 Liability Lawsuits

"Businesses' calls for immunity are premised on a false choice between the return to a healthy economy and allowing businesses to be held accountable if they cause people to get sick."

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) removes a mask he is wearing to protect himself and others from Covid-19 as he arrives to speak to the media following the weekly Republican policy luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., May 5, 2020.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) removes a mask he is wearing to protect himself and others from Covid-19 as he arrives to speak to the media following the weekly Republican policy luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., May 5, 2020. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

In a joint letter Wednesday to the Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress, six consumer rights groups expressed concern that "a broad range of businesses are seeking immunity from potential liability related to contracting Covid-19" and urged the federal lawmakers to block any attempts to weaken state-level protections.

Public Citizen, Consumer Federation of America, Consumer Reports, the National Association of Consumer Advocates, National Consumer League, and U.S. PIRG wrote that they all "oppose vigorously any proposals that the federal government override state-law claims and remedies that enable workers and consumers to hold companies accountable through the civil justice system."

"Such proposals, if enacted, would undermine consumer and worker protections, excuse negligent conduct, and show unwarranted disrespect for state law, including centuries-old state-law remedies," the groups warned House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

"Businesses' calls for immunity are premised on a false choice between the return to a healthy economy and allowing businesses to be held accountable if their carelessness causes people to get sick," the letter argues. "Companies' purported concern about lawsuits leading to catastrophic bankruptcies is a smokescreen for an opportunistic attempt to use the anxiety that we all share today to push through a groundbreaking weakening of the law."

The letter notes that since far before the pandemic, businesses have worked to weaken "crucial" state laws that enable injured individuals to sue companies or stores, and details the history of businesses being held liable for failing to meet basic standards of care. The groups also highlighted some examples of cases that may be brought in relation to the current public health crisis.

"A nursing home that failed to take precautions recommended by its state health department, or a company that encouraged employees to come to work after an outbreak at the facility—these businesses should not be immune from liability," the letter says. "As in any litigation, the businesses may have defenses that will prevail in court—but they should not be immune from liability."

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Recognizing the role that states have played in protecting those on the front lines of this crisis, the letter adds that "good public policy, a commitment to worker and public health and safety, respect for the states and our federalist system, and common sense—all counsel against immunizing companies from liability when their own conduct causes harm."

In a statement Wednesday, Public Citizen noted that the new message to congressional leadership—which was published in full online—followed an April 29 letter from 118 groups similarly pressuring Congress to block any effort to "establish nationwide immunity for businesses that operate in an unreasonably unsafe manner, causing returning workers and consumers to risk Covid-19 infection."

Both letters also echo public sentiment, according to polling results released (pdf) Wednesday by Hart Research. Among a nationally representative sample of 1,202 voters, 64% of all respondents "oppose giving guaranteed immunity to companies from lawsuits in cases involving coronavirus infection."

Notably, that was the majority opinion across the U.S. political spectrum. Granting businesses immunity was opposed by 72% of Democrats, 64% of Independents, and 56% of Republicans surveyed. The poll also found that 61% of all voters believe that granting corporations immunity would lead to more Covid-19 cases.

The Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), has scheduled a hearing for May 12 entitled "Examining Liability During the Covid-19 Pandemic." According to The Post and Courier, dozens of business groups in Graham's state "are calling on federal legislators to protect employers from legal liability if workers develop Covid-19 after returning to the workplace."

As the Charleston-based newspaper reported Thursday, "Led by the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce, a coalition of organizations representing manufacturers, truckers, retailers, and others say efforts to restart the economy are threatened by the risk of employers 'becoming the targets of coronavirus-related lawsuits,' according to an open letter to the state's senators and representatives."

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