lawsuits

GOP bill would deter frivolous COVID lawsuits

As customers slowly trickle back into stores and workers punch back in at reopened businesses, one thought dominates all our minds: caution.

Protective plastic shields and screens, face masks and gloves are a new reality, and it is a small price to pay for coming out of state-mandated lockdowns. But months into the all-encompassing coronavirus pandemic, there is another cost many entrepreneurs and administrators fear: future legal bills.

While voluntary precautions will be plentiful in every situation where a customer, student or worker is getting back out in the world, the nature of the virus means it is almost certain that someone, somewhere, will catch the virus. That means huge potential legal ramifications if a person wants to hold an institution or business liable.

A demonstrable lawsuit epidemic already exists. Between March and May of this year, more than 2,400 COVID-related lawsuits have been filed in federal and state courts. These cases are likely to blow up the legal system as we know it, elevating accusations of blame, clogging every level of our courts and keeping judges and lawyers busy for some time.

That is why the idea of a liability shield for schools, businesses and organizations has taken up steam. In a recent letter to congressional leaders, 21 governors, all Republicans, called on both houses of Congress to include liability protections in the next round of coronavirus relief.

“To accelerate reopening our economies as quickly and as safely as possible, we must allow citizens to get back to their livelihoods and make a living for their families without the threat of frivolous lawsuits,” the governors wrote.

While a liability shield will not give cover to institutions that are negligent or reckless, and reasonably so, it would ensure that blatantly frivolous or unfounded lawsuits are not allowed to go forward. For the average entrepreneur or school administrator, this would help alleviate some of the worries that are keeping many institutions and businesses closed or severely restricted.

No one wants customers or workers catching the virus in these environments, but creating 100 percent COVID-free zones would be next to impossible, a fact many scientists are ready to acknowledge. That’s why state governors, lawmakers and business leaders want to ensure that our states can open back up, yet be cognizant of the risk.

There is still plenty of uncertainty related to transmission of the virus, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has pointed out, and that is why a liability shield — at least for those who follow health and safety recommendations — makes sense. Businesses and schools that willfully endanger citizens through negligence, though, should rightfully be held liable. This is the idea currently being debated in the nation’s capital, as Senate Republicans have stated they want a liability shield to avoid a lawsuit contagion.

Unfortunately, the idea is likely to be mired in a toxic partisan death spiral. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York decries such a plan as “legal immunity for big corporations” and national reporting on the topic has suggested as much.

But these protections would most benefit small businesses and schools that follow health recommendations and still find themselves the subject of lawsuits. It’s no secret that many attorneys see a potential payday in the wake of the pandemic. Already hundreds of law firms are pitching “coronavirus lawyers.”

And much as in consumer fraud cases before the pandemic, a favorite tool of coronavirus tort lawyers will be large class-action lawsuits that seek huge payouts. These are the cases that usually end up lining the pockets of legal firms instead of legitimately harmed plaintiffs, as a recent Jones Day law firm report finds. And that does not even speak to whether these cases have merit or not.

Whether it’s the local community college or bakery, we must all recognize that assigning blame for virus contraction will be a frequent topic of concern. But those accusations must be founded, and be the result of outright harmful and negligent behavior, not just because students are back in class or customers are once again buying cakes. A liability shield for the responsible citizens of our country is not only a good idea but necessary.

Yaël Ossowski is deputy director of the Consumer Choice Center. This article was published in the Waco Tribune-Herald.

Responsible businesses need COVID-19 liability shields

As customers slowly trickle back into stores and workers punch back in at reopened businesses, there’s one thought on all our minds: caution.

Protective plastic shields and screens, face masks and gloves are a new reality, and it is a small price to pay for coming out of state-mandated lockdowns.

But months into the all-encompassing coronavirus pandemic, there is another cost many entrepreneurs and administrators fear: future legal bills. 

While voluntary precautions will be plentiful in every situation where a customer, student or worker is getting back out in the world, the nature of the virus means it is almost certain that someone, somewhere, will catch the virus. That means huge potential legal ramifications if a person wants to hold an institution or business liable.

In this April 15, 2020, file photo, two people walk past a closed sign at a retail store in Chicago.Nam Y. Huh, AP

There is already a demonstrable lawsuit epidemic. Between March and May of this year, more than 2,400 COVID-related lawsuits have been filed in federal and state courts. These cases are likely to blow up our legal system as we know it, elevating accusations of blame and clogging every level of our courts that will keep judges and lawyers busy for some time.

That is why the idea of a liability shield for schools, businesses and organizations has taken up steam.

In a recent letter to congressional leaders, 21 governors, all Republicans, called on both houses of Congress to include liability protections in the next round of coronavirus relief.

“To accelerate reopening our economies as quickly and as safely as possible, we must allow citizens to get back to their livelihoods and make a living for their families without the threat of frivolous lawsuits,” the governors wrote.

While a liability shield will not give cover to institutions that are negligent or reckless, and reasonably so, it would ensure that blatantly frivolous or unfounded lawsuits are not allowed to go forward.

For the average entrepreneur or school administrator, that would help alleviate some of the worries that are keeping many of these institutions closed or severely restricted.

No one wants customers or workers catching the virus in these environments, but creating 100% COVID-free zones would be next to impossible, a fact many scientists are ready to acknowledge. That’s why state governors, lawmakers and business leaders want to ensure that our states can open back up, but be cognizant of the risk. 

There is still plenty of uncertainty related to the transmission of the virus, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has pointed out, and that is why a liability shield — at least for those who follow health and safety recommendations — makes sense. Businesses and schools that willfully endanger citizens through negligence though, should rightfully be held liable.

This is the idea currently being debated in the nation’s capital, as Senate Republicans have stated they want a liability shield to avoid a lawsuit contagion.

Unfortunately, the idea is likely to be mired in a toxic partisan death spiral. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York decries such a plan as “legal immunity for big corporations” and reporting on the topic has resembled such. 

But these protections would most benefit small businesses and schools that follow health recommendations and still find themselves the subject of lawsuits. 

It is no secret that many attorneys see a potential payday in the wake of the pandemic. There are already many law firms pitching “coronavirus lawyers” and many have reassigned entire teams and departments to focus on providing legal advice and counsel for COVID-19 cases. 

And much like in consumer fraud cases before the pandemic, a favorite tool of coronavirus tort lawyers will be large class-action lawsuits that seek huge payouts. These are the cases that usually end up lining the pockets of legal firms instead of legitimately harmed plaintiffs, as a recent Jones Day report finds. And that does not even speak to whether or not these cases have merit or not.

In debating the next level of pandemic relief for Americans, including a liability shield would be a great measure of confidence for responsible and cautious businesses and institutions in our country. 

Whether it is the local community college or bakery, we must all recognize that assigning blame for virus contraction will be a frequent topic of concern. But those accusations must be founded, and be the result of outright harmful and negligent behavior, not just because students are back in class or customers are once again buying cakes.

A liability shield for the responsible citizens of our country is not only a good idea but necessary.

Originally published in the Detroit Times here.


The Consumer Choice Center is the consumer advocacy group supporting lifestyle freedom, innovation, privacy, science, and consumer choice. The main policy areas we focus on are digital, mobility, lifestyle & consumer goods, and health & science.

The CCC represents consumers in over 100 countries across the globe. We closely monitor regulatory trends in Ottawa, Washington, Brussels, Geneva and other hotspots of regulation and inform and activate consumers to fight for #ConsumerChoice. Learn more at consumerchoicecenter.org

Can you sue the ski hut where you contracted coronavirus?

European nations may be opening up their economies throughout the month of May, but that grand opening is likely to be dogged by the wave of COVID-19-related lawsuits.

We learned over the weekend that over 5,000 international tourists to the ski town of Ischgl, Austria are in the process of filing a lawsuit against the town and public officials. There are also being considered against ski resort owners in the area.

The lawsuit is being prepared by the Austrian Consumer Protection Association, which claims health authorities and the bar owners were “negligent” in not shutting down ski huts and restaurants earlier. They launched a website asking potential plaintiffs to share their information in order to join a future class-action lawsuit.

Often described as the “Ibiza of the Alps,” Ischgl made international headlines as an epicenter of the coronavirus crisis. At one particular venue, Kitzloch, a German bartender reportedly tested positive for coronavirus on March 7th. The bar closed its doors two days later. The town went into lockdown on March 13th. Tyrolean Governor Günther Platter then issued a province-wide quarantine on March 18th.

By the end of March, nearly 1,000 cases across Europe could be traced back to the resort town, and as many of 1,500 to the region itself.

The complaint states that the delay from the first known case until the ski town was ordered into lockdown was “negligible” and that authorities should have “known of a threat of mass infection”. Some have even blamed “greed” and “toxic business” as the reason local officials and business owners waited before shuttering doors. But as covered above, ski lodges and restaurants shut before provincial and national lockdowns ordered them to.

The first death in Austria from the coronavirus wasn’t until March 12, after which the town of Ischgl went into complete lockdown. The national lockdown went into effect four days later.

Is this enough to make a case against ski huts and villages where tourists contracted coronavirus?

As my colleague Linda Kavuka has pointed out, the current pandemic is a living and breathing example of Force Majeure, an Act of God that indemnifies certain parties in lawsuits and breaches of contract because it is simply “beyond the control” of any person or organization.

That said, there are legitimate questions to be asked: should ski towns have shuttered their doors and closed down bars and restaurants earlier? Likely. But we simply didn’t have the same information then as we do now.

And considering the very disturbing revelations about obfuscation of information by both the Chinese Communist Party and the World Health Organization at the outset of this crisis, it’s hard to place blame solely at the feet of local mayors and ski hut owners in the Alps.

(That’s why the U.S. states of Mississippi and Missouri have filed lawsuits against China.)

Of course, the fact that any skier or holiday goer would contract the coronavirus at a place where they were supposed to be enjoying themselves is a tragedy. Many people unknowingly spread the virus, were hospitalized themselves and died as a result. No one can excuse that loss of life and the grief that ensues.

But what we must hold uphold, in this situation and many more to come, is the facts and cases we allow to enter our legal system and our courts.

Classifying or assigning claims of negligence in the pandemic could likely mean thousands of unwitting public officials, business owners, and individuals will be held liable for what they didn’t know at the time. That would be a dangerous precedent.

We’ve often covered the incredibly litigious culture in the United States’ tort law system and articulated to reasons to reform it. Now, it seems, we’ll have to spread that same message throughout the European continent.

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