Tennessee lawmakers to consider giving businesses immunity from coronavirus-related suits

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Tennessee may join a handful of states offering businesses liability protection from employees and others who sue because of contracting the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Gov. Bill Lee has called a special session of the General Assembly starting Monday to consider legislation that offers limited immunity from liability to businesses, schools, nonprofit organizations, churches, academic and health facilities and healthcare providers, and others.

As COVID-19 continues to present unique challenges, it's in the state's best interest to address liability protections, Gov. Bill Lee said.

Lee, a Republican, said liability protection would be an extension of his July 1 executive order granting limited COVID-related liability protection to healthcare providers, except in cases of gross negligence or willful misconduct.

Legislation to be considered in the special session will "provide legal clarity and certainty" for those who are covered, the governor said.

“As COVID-19 continues to present unique challenges, we feel it is in the best interest of the state to convene a special session to address liability protections and telehealth,” Lee said in a statement.

In June, the Republican-controlled House and Senate couldn't come to an agreement on Senate Bill 2381 and House Bill 2623, which proposed rewriting the Tennessee Recovery and Safe Harbor Act to limit liability for various entities relating to illness, injury or death from coronavirus.

Under those bills, a covered entity would not be liable for damages, injury or death that resulted from, or in connection with, a health emergency claim related to coronavirus unless the claimant proved by "clear and convincing evidence" that the covered entity was acting with gross negligence or willful misconduct and the entity didn't "substantially" comply with public health guidance.

As of mid-June, Louisiana, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Utah and Wyoming had enacted laws granting businesses immunity from civil lawsuits related to the coronavirus, according to the Expert Institute.

A similar immunity measure has been proposed by Senate Republicans in Congress, and has become a stumbling block in negotiations with Democrats over what will go into the latest stimulus package.

While Tennessee lawmakers couldn't agree on a liability measure earlier this year, there appears to be a more cooperative tone ahead of Monday's special session, which will also address the costs of telehealth services and increase penalties for vandalism that occurs at the state capitol.

“We are looking forward to coming back and finishing the people’s business to increase access to telehealth services, and to protect businesses, churches, academic and health facilities from baseless lawsuits during the ongoing pandemic," House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, said in a statement.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, said that, as speaker of the Senate, he also supports legislation that offers various entities limited immunity from COVID-19 claims.

"The last thing small business owners, pastors, doctors and school superintendents need to worry about are frivolous lawsuits, which would further impede their ability to do their jobs in this difficult time," McNally said.

Tennessee has seen a spike in COVID-19 cases.

As of Wednesday, 114,098 people had tested positive and 1,144 deaths had been caused by the virus. Some 5,001 people were hospitalized, according to the Tennessee Department of Health.

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