Consumer and workers' rights advocates are warning that new details of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's plan to shield businesses from coronavirus-related lawsuits show just how far the Republican leader is willing to go to ensure corporations are not held accountable for endangering public health and safety.
"The Senate's rabid desire to shield corporations from accountability when they jeopardize the health and wellness of their employees will only result in more people feeling—and being—less safe and less protected from Covid-19."
—Robert Weissman, Public Citizen
"Congress must reject this dangerous proposal," the National Employment Law Project said in response to a draft (pdf) of McConnell's plan obtained by Politico and other outlets on Friday.
The draft, authored by McConnell and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas.), proposes relieving businesses, schools, churches, and other institutions of legal responsibility for workers, customers, and others who contract Covid-19 except in cases of "gross negligence and intentional misconduct"—a difficult standard to prove in court.
As the Associated Press reported, the Republican plan "offers a broad shield by requiring heightened pleading standards, stiffening burden-of-proof standards, and capping damages on awards. Employers would also be shielded from investigations by federal agencies."
Additionally, McConnell and Cornyn's plan would empower companies to move coronavirus-related personal injury and medical liability cases to more business-friendly federal courts. "Defendants are liable," the draft states, "only if they failed to make reasonable efforts to follow applicable public-health guidelines."
McConnell's plan to enact sweeping corporate immunity is out. It would ensure that workers, consumers, and students have absolutely no recourse when corporations recklessly disregard their health.
— People's Parity Project (@PeoplesParity) July 17, 2020
Robert Weissman, president of consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, said in a statement Friday that "the Senate's rabid desire to shield corporations from accountability when they jeopardize the health and wellness of their employees will only result in more people feeling—and being—less safe and less protected from Covid-19."
McConnell has repeatedly warned of an "epidemic" of lawsuits if businesses aren't granted sweeping legal protections as they reopen—a line echoed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—but Public Citizen said in an issue brief Thursday that the Kentucky Republican's warning is baseless.
"While both the Chamber and U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell argue that immunizing businesses during a pandemic is the only way to stop a flood of litigation, the evidence shows that there is no flood," said Remington Gregg, counsel for civil justice and consumer rights at Public Citizen.
The details of McConnell's proposal emerged just days before the start of formal negotiations over the next Covid-19 stimulus package.
McConnell has described the corporate liability shield as his "red line" for the negotiations, despite widespread opposition from civil society organizations and small business leaders who say the plan would give big companies a free pass to expose workers and customers to Covid-19.
"Be clear: this is an anti-civil rights proposal," tweeted the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. "Congress must put people over profits and reject it."