The State of Mississippi fully reopened, under restrictions, on June 1, 2020, after nearly three full months of restrictive regulations due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The virus has hit the economy hard, adversely impacting businesses of all sizes across the world. There have also been indications that businesses could face liability lawsuits as reopening continues.
Scott Waller, President and CEO of the Mississippi Economic Council, said moving forward, there needs to be an assurance to businesses and visitors that all involved are taking the appropriate measures to ensure safety. He said one way this can happen is through legislation protecting businesses from potential lawsuits specific to COVID-19.
“It’s all about giving that confidence to not only the businessperson but it will also give confidence to the consumer that the business has a certain responsibility to follow protocols,” said Waller.
As MEC and other groups began focusing on how businesses would reopen after such a long closure, business liability was without question an area of concern.
Potential legislation would provide protection from someone coming in and claiming they contracted COVID-19. It would also protect the business from employees or others making similar claims. Waller hopes that the issue will be addressed quickly by the Legislature, and it seems this is an area where the Legislature and Governor’s office are in sync.
When asked last week whether or not he would like to see a bill to protect businesses from liability, Lt. Governor Delbert Hosemann said, “Yes.” He also indicated that he hoped to see that passed before lawmakers sine die this year.
In order for a bill with this language to be considered at this point in the session, members would have to suspend the rules. If a special session was called by the Governor this issue could also be added to the agenda, a move Governor Tate Reeves has not ruled out.
“This is especially for our essential business out there who are following all the protocols and doing exactly what they are supposed to do, yet they still have themselves open to a lawsuit with a virus that can’t really be proven where you got it,” said Waller.
He said identifying the origin of contagion has been an issue from day one. If officials have not been able to figure out exactly where the virus began in the first place, Waller said it would be difficult to assert where someone was exposed to it and contracted it while visiting or working within a business.
With those concerns known, Waller said he felt the best thing they could do was put the protections in legislation.
“Unless there is some type of willful or malicious intent a business should be held without having to face liability issues over someone getting sick,” said Waller.
This would only protect businesses making the full effort to ensure that all health precautions to protect employees and visitors were being taken.
In fact, Waller said many companies have spent tens of thousands of dollars just on safety precautions. These safety measures are not just for the employees but for consumers on the retail level. Waller said many manufacturers have even changed how they operate in order to comply with the state’s recommendations.
There is expected to be a letter sent by over 40 businesses and interest groups to the Legislative leadership urging them to adopt policy (you can view that letter at the bottom of this article).
“If they’re doing everything they’re being asked to do there should be some kind of guideline to protect them,” said Waller.
He said these types of claims will ultimately only hurt jobs as states begin to try to reopen the economy.
In a recent poll, businesses showed major concern in three areas, one of which was ensuring the safety of anyone involved with their business. Waller said these businesses are working hard to ensure that employees and consumers feel safe coming back.
In the same poll, business and consumer confidence is at a low. Over 400 out of 1,000 small businesses polled said that consumer confidence is of the highest concern as the economy reopens. When consumer confidence is low, oftentimes so are sales.
Over 40 percent of those polled said that the shutdown had an 80 percent or more impact on revenue over the last three months, and there is an expectation that those numbers will stay low even as the economy reopens.
“That’s our goal, is to make sure this is one thing that is taken off the table that they don’t have to worry about. Hopefully as we go through the legislative process we will find the right avenue for this to happen,” said Waller.
Concern over lawsuits was first voiced publicly by former Democrat Attorney General Jim Hood.
“People are going to get sued because of the actions of politicians who are listening to the insurance companies and the moneyed interest rather than the doctors,” Hood told WJTV.
Now back in the private sector, Hood said that the state should have waited to reopen in order to be safe from any liability. Hood asserted that the “little guy” should be taking to the courthouse to protest these re-openings. He added that these businesses should be held responsible and warns that litigation will be part of it.
“What’s happening is a lot of these businesses that are believing these politicians are going to wind up getting themselves sued, they’re going to get sued by not only their employees but they’re also going to get sued by customers if they’re not following the standard of care,” said Hood.
After Hood’s comments, Governor Reeves took to Twitter saying that businesses should be protected from lawsuits if following the rules.
He added that he would be open to calling a special session if the necessary.
Jim Hood said his DC law firm is going to sue Mississippi small businesses—blaming them for the spread of COVID-19—even if you follow the rules. All must be protected from liberal lawyers if acting in good faith. Ambulance chasers. I’d call a special session if legislature asks!
— Tate Reeves (@tatereeves) May 29, 2020
Letter to be sent to Legislative leadership: