BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Restaurants serving takeout and delivery orders in Louisiana during the coronavirus outbreak and businesses providing protective gear should be largely shielded from lawsuits for injuries, the state Senate decided Thursday.
Senators overwhelmingly supported the pair of bills from Republican Sens. Sharon Hewitt and Patrick McMath, which are similar to business-backed measures proposed in other states and in Washington amid the pandemic.
Supporters say the liability protections are needed to ensure that businesses that stayed open to provide services to people despite the virus’s risks and that converted their manufacturing operations to provide needed protective gear shouldn’t face “frivolous lawsuits.”
“During this crisis, small businesses had our back,” said Republican Sen. Heather Cloud, a business owner from Turkey Creek.
The liability limitation proposal from Hewitt, of Slidell, would offer the protections to people and businesses who donate recovery services or products — such as hand sanitizer and protective clothing — and to people and businesses selling that type of disaster aid “outside of the typical course and scope of their operations.” They couldn’t be sued for injuries, deaths or property damage involving the services or products, unless someone could prove the high legal standard of “gross negligence or willful misconduct.”
The protections would extend during any declared state of emergency in Louisiana.
McMath’s proposal would offer similar protections to restaurant owners and employees, though it would only apply to the coronavirus outbreak, not to future emergencies or disasters in the state.
Both measures would retroactively cover activities beginning March 11.
Hewitt said she wanted to encourage businesses that have donated products or converted their manufacturing operations to make needed virus-related supplies. As an example, she pointed to Louisiana distilleries that used their alcohol to make hand sanitizer.
“You don’t want people to be afraid to respond in an emergency because they’re afraid they’re going to be sued. That could have a chilling effect,” she said.
Republican Sen. Pat Connick, a lawyer from Marrero, opposed Hewitt’s bill, raising concerns about the risk of defective products.
“We’re giving blanket immunity … for some products that may not even work. They may not be effective against the coronavirus,” Connick said.
Democratic Sen. Jay Luneau, a lawyer from Alexandria, objected to both measures. He said while he appreciated the spirit of the proposals, they could have unintended consequences.
For example, he said a retired chemist could decide to create hand sanitizer in a garage but make a mistake and blow up that garage. A neighbor whose home is damaged from the explosion couldn’t sue for the damage, Luneau said.
“You need to think carefully about what message you want to send,” he said.
The Senate also backed a measure aimed at shielding government agencies from lawsuits from employees required to work during the coronavirus outbreak, if they follow the guidance for protective measures issued by the state and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.