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ALERT: OHIO LEGISLATURE PUSHING FOR NEW IMMUNITY LAW THAT PUTS OHIO EMPLOYEES AT RISK

Laura Wilson

Two companion bills, SB 308 and HB 606, are under consideration in the Ohio House and Senate.  Fast-track hearings on these bills are set for Wednesday, May 27, 2020.  The bills say businesses can’t be held liable for illnesses or death arising from what they did or did not do during a declared disaster.  The proposed law does not explicitly mention COVID-19, making it apply to any illness and any disaster including events like tornadoes, floods, fires or other emergencies not related to COVID-19.

So far these bills have not received much public input. This is very concerning because this legislation would make it very difficult to hold bad actors accountable during any state of emergency in Ohio.  HB 606 and SB 308 are extreme measures that harm Ohio citizens and allow businesses to injure and kill people with no liability.  At a recent Senate hearing on SB 308, the bill’s sponsor admitted that as the law is written, if a business reopens and ignores Ohio Department of Health and CDC guidance by not limiting customers inside, not enforcing social distancing, not requiring masks for employees, or failing to offer hand sanitizer and soap, the company would still be immune from lawsuits.

The provisions of the proposed law include:

  • All health care providers are exempt from lawsuits and from professional discipline for all negligent and reckless acts taken, or not taken, because of a disaster or emergency.

The law is written so broadly that if a physician is drunk during a procedure to put a COVID-19 patient on a ventilator, and injures him or her, the patient cannot sue the doctor.  Not only is the injured patient prevented from bringing suit for his or her injuries, but under the law, the medical board would not be allowed to investigate or issue any professional discipline to that doctor.  This shield from liability even applies in places that care for our most vulnerable Ohioans, like nursing homes, adult day care centers, and residential homes that care for people with physical and mental disabilities.

  • Businesses cannot be held responsible for the spread of a coronavirus during the disaster because the proposed laws bans lawsuits regarding exposure to any illness.

This lawsuit ban applies whether the business follows recommended safety guidelines or not. That means that a business that intentionally ignores the recommended safety guidelines cannot be held accountable if a customer or employee contracts an illness.  So, for example, if a grocery store sells lettuce tainted with e-coli after a recall has been issued, and the contaminated lettuce is sold during a disaster or emergency, the business could not be sued for selling the recalled lettuce knowing that it will make customers sick.

The law would also protect employers from suit for recklessly endangering the health and safety of their employees, forcing employees to choose between keeping their jobs and keeping themselves and their families safe. The Workers Compensation system will not effectively protect employees from many potential illnesses like COVID-19.  This part of the law means greater harm for people with disabilities and unrelated health problems, the elderly, and minorities and low-income populations who are all at greater risk of severe long-term illness or death if exposed to any illness.

  • Under the Ohio Senate version of the law, all essential businesses such as grocery stores, pharmacies, manufacturers of PPE, meat processing plants, etc. are shielded from suit for all negligent and reckless acts or omissions taken, directly or indirectly, in providing its services during any disaster or emergency.

This means the law would shield these businesses from all suits for injuries, even those that are unrelated to COVID-19. This provision is so broad it could even shield employers who punish or fire employees for reporting unsafe conditions.

The bill will be retroactive to December 1, 2019, a completely random date which is more than three months prior to the current state of emergency declared by the Ohio Governor on March 9, 2020.  There is no effective end date for declared disasters and emergencies in this legislation. So, businesses could continue to harm and kill people with no repercussions forever.

While many businesses support the proposed law, they also recognize that the law needs to be amended to offer protection to those businesses that follow the guidelines, not the ones who disregard them. The Buckeye Institute, a conservative think tank, called for changes to require that the legal standard for protection from lawsuits be tied to CDC or state health guidelines. Otherwise, the bill would shield business owners who act badly, who fail to provide proper safety measures for employees, and even reward those who are lax or ignore the recommended protocols.  As currently written, HB 606 and SB 308 put vulnerable Ohioans at serious risk.  These bills need to be amended to protect Ohio’s citizens and not just Ohio businesses.

To contact your Ohio state senator and ask that these bills be changed to protect Ohio workers and vulnerable citizens, you can go to this link to find your senator:  The Ohio Senate District Map

For more information on the proposed law see:

Coronavirus: Lawmakers consider legal immunity for health care, businesses

AARP Opposes Critical Gaps for Nursing Homes in Current Legislation

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