ATLANTA — Georgia lawmakers want to protect businesses and other from being sued if someone blames them for contracting COVID-19, but House members voted Friday for less-extensive protections than the business community sought.
House members voted 104-56 to approve Senate Bill 359, and senators agreed to the changes on a 34-16 vote, sending the measure to Gov. Brian Kemp for his signature or veto.
“People need to be able to get back to work, and the way people get back to work is businesses feeling comfortable opening themselves up,” said House Majority Whip Trey Kelley, a Cedartown Republican.
The bill is the result of weeks of haggling among lawmakers, business groups and plaintiff’s lawyers. The Senate on Tuesday approved a bill that would have made it even harder to sue, adopting the business community’s preferred language.
Some Republicans briefly argued that they should vote down the House version, but Senate Majority Leader John Kennedy, a Macon Republican, said he was giving up late Friday.
“It’s not where we need to be,” Kennedy said.
Democrats argued that the bill is overly broad and should, at most, protect health care institutions. House Minority Leader Bob Trammell, a Luthersville Democrat, said the bill risked letting businesses off the hook for safety.
“Let me tell you something: businesses don’t get COVID, people get COVID,” Trammell said. “This bill doesn’t seek to protect people against COVID, it seeks to protect businesses against people.”
Trammell argued lawmakers should instead be seeking to provide better protections for frontline workers.
“We need to be legislating about public health measures that will keep people safe,” Trammell said.
Under the language approved Friday, a business, health care provider or protected entity would have to display gross negligence, “willful and wanton misconduct” or reckless or intentional infliction of harm to lose a lawsuit.
That’s higher than the regular standard of negligence, but the Senate had removed even gross negligence, leading opponents to argue that it would be almost impossible to win a lawsuit.
The Georgia Chamber of Commerce and others have called for a lawsuit shield.
“These are things we have to do to get our lives moving again,” Kelley said.
Gov. Brian Kemp already exempted hospitals and medical professionals from liability by executive order, but protections run out when Kemp’s emergency powers expire.
But some Democratic critics said even health care institutions shouldn’t be protected.
Rep. Al Williams, a Midway Democrat, noted that nursing home residents have disproportionately died, and said lawmakers shouldn’t cut off lawsuits against nursing homes that may have poor records of caring for residents.
“The legislation protects those who don’t deserve protection because they were lousy at business before the pandemic and they will be lousy at business after the pandemic,” Williams said.