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Bills would shield North Dakota businesses from virus suits

January 27, 2021 GMT

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Some North Dakota lawmakers are pushing legislation aimed at shielding businesses and health care facilities from lawsuits over customers’ or employees’ COVID-19 exposure, despite criticism that it may be unconstitutional and could relax protections for workers.

The House Industry, Business and Labor Committee held hearings Wednesday on a pair of bills aimed at limiting coronavirus-related liability lawsuits. One, HB1376, is backed by Republicans and would give immunity to businesses, unless an employer caused damage or an injury due to “willful misconduct or infliction of harm.” The other, HB 1175, is a bipartisan measure that is broader and limits exposure of health care facilities from lawsuits relating to COVID-19 exposure.

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Committee Chairman Mike Lefor told The Associated Press it was likely the two bills would be combined. The committee did not take immediate action of the legislation Wednesday.

Officials representing business and hospital groups spoke in favor of the legislation, while some attorneys and a union leader opposed it.

“Without your action, businesses here in North Dakota, trying to do the right things, remain unprotected and exposed to frivolous civil lawsuits,” said Arik Spencer, CEO and president of the Greater North Dakota Chamber, the state’s largest business organization.

Landis Larson, president of the North Dakota AFL-CIO, told the committee that many employers are doing the best they can to protect workers but some are not.

“Shielding these bad actors from litigation would only encourage them to ignore the scant guidelines on infectious diseases” while giving employees and their families “no legal recourse,” he said.

The North Dakota Association for Justice, a state organization of attorneys who fight for individual and civil rights, opposes the legislation. Some attorneys testified that the legislation is not needed because existing laws already protect employers.

“Why are we creating laws that aren’t necessary?” Bismarck attorney David Schweigert said. “We don’t need to pass needless laws.”

Fargo attorney Tim O’Keeffe called the legislation “redundant and potentially unconstitutional.” O’Keeffe warned that passing the legislation could “clog up the court systems” by those challenging it.

Several states have passed — or are considering — similar laws after a federal proposal led by Senate Republicans failed to win approval last year.