Republican legislators in Kansas are joining a broader effort to shield doctors, hospitals, and businesses from lawsuits stemming from the coronavirus, with business and medical groups pushing them to act quickly.
The effort faces strong opposition from labor unions, trial lawyers and some Democrats. They fear that such measures could be too broad, and keep patients, consumers, and employees from using the court system to hold businesses and medical providers accountable for negligence or misconduct.
Similar efforts are underway in Congress, with Derek Schmidt of Kansas joining other GOP state attorneys general in calling for legislation to head off “frivolous” lawsuits. Legislators in multiple states, including Mississippi, North Carolina and Utah, are considering their own laws.
In Kansas, the state House Judiciary Committee planned to have the first of three Zoom meetings on the issue on Wednesday, and its Senate counterpart is expected to meet next week. The full GOP-controlled Legislature plans to meet May 21 for its last remaining day in session this year.
“What about a company who re-purposes their facilities because they’re closed as nonessential but they have the equipment to manufacture masks?” said Eric Stafford, a Kansas Chamber of Commerce lobbyist. “Somebody who’s trying to do a good deed, should they be punished, for liability for failure to prevent someone from getting sick?”
Groups pushing for quick legislative action said they fear businesses that reopened after Democratic Governor Laura Kelly lifted a statewide stay-at-home order on May 4 will face lawsuits if customers or employees get sick, or that customers or employees will sue businesses that were deemed essential and remained open while others closed.
Stafford said the chamber wants to ensure that businesses are protected if they followed health officials’ guidelines for operating safely.
The debate also comes after President Donald Trump directed meatpacking plants to stay open despite the spread of the coronavirus among workers. Kansas has seen seven large outbreaks at such plants, accounting for nearly 1,300 confirmed cases, or 18% of the state’s total, with two COVID-19-related deaths.
Dr. Beth Oller, a family physician in Rooks County in northwestern Kansas, said she thinks businesses should face legal liability if, for example, they won’t provide proper protective equipment for employees. But, she said, it could be “a bad precedent” to allow lawsuits when one customer of a business following health guidelines gets the virus from another customer.