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Kentucky Senate backs COVID liability shield for businesses

March 2, 2021 GMT

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Legislation that would provide broad protections to shield Kentucky businesses from coronavirus-related lawsuits won approval from the state Senate after a long debate Monday evening.

Senate President Robert Stivers described the measure as a necessary step to help businesses recover from pandemic-related setbacks without the fear of potential virus-related lawsuits.

“We must take every step possible to help our businesses get started,” Stivers said. “We cannot afford to put another straw on that camel’s back that may break it. Because many are already broken, we don’t need to see any more become broken because they are in fear of litigation.”

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The Republican Senate president is lead sponsor of the bill, which passed the chamber on a 24-11 vote and now goes to the House. The House passed its version of virus-related liability protections for businesses in January. Republicans dominate both chambers and will try to reach agreement on a final version before this year’s session ends in late March.

Business groups are pressing for a legal liability shield to block potential litigation as Kentuckians who have dealt with COVID-19 start casting blame for their infections. Opponents of the Senate bill said lawsuits haven’t been surfacing in Kentucky over the transmission of the virus.

The Senate measure ran into resistance from some lawmakers who said it’s too broadly written and favors some Kentuckians over others.

Republican Sen. Phillip Wheeler said the bill “devalues certain lives” by “creating a class of people who are protected and sacrificing other people who don’t receive protections but yet may be injured by the actions of the protected class.”

Wheeler said the bill creates a higher standard of negligence for businesses providing services deemed “essential” during the pandemic than for other businesses.

The bill would apply to a range of businesses as well as health providers and governments. They would be given liability protections from pandemic-related lawsuits unless they engaged in “wanton, willful, malicious or grossly negligent” conduct.

Opponents warned some people would suffer because it’s so difficult to prove such standards.

The protections would cover Kentucky businesses that produced personal protective equipment that helped the state combat the virus’s spread.

In supporting the bill, Republican Sen. Matt Castlen recounted the uncertainties that businesses faced early in the pandemic. Business operators faced difficult decisions, and the bill would provide “just a little bit of protection for the people who took the risks to provide for our communities during these troubling times,” he said.

Sen. Morgan McGarvey, the chamber’s top-ranking Democrat, said there are circumstances when liability protections are warranted but said the bill goes too far.

“We’ve written a bill that’s so broad there’s a chance you could slip and fall in the grocery store even a year after the pandemic is over and not be able to do anything about it,” he said.

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The legislation is Senate Bill 5.