Reversing course, Parson asks lawmakers to drop COVID liability bill from special session

The issue was a top priority for Parson, who expanded the special session last month after receiving requests from legislators.

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson delivers his first State of the State address to a joint session of the legislature in 2018 (photo courtesy of the Missouri Governor's Office).

Less than three weeks after expanding the special session’s call, Gov. Mike Parson reversed course and asked lawmakers to wait until January to take up legislation that aims to shield businesses from lawsuits stemming from the pandemic.

A spokeswoman for the governor confirmed his request in an email to The Independent on Tuesday night as the Senate Committee on Government Reform heard testimony on the bill proposed by Sen. Ed Emery, R-Lamar. 

Roughly an hour into Tuesday’s hearing, state Sen. Eric Burlison, R-Battlefield, told a witness that the news “may cause you to limit your remarks,” leading to chuckles throughout the room. But Burlison later added that the time they spend in committee now will “benefit us in the next few weeks.”

Emery echoed Burlison’s comments as the hearing came to a close. He later said that the decision to pull the bill was “a surprise” as he had not spoken with the governor’s office and did not know the reasons behind it.

Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, said in a statement Tuesday night that “it remains a top priority to protect Missouri small businesses and deliver certainty in these uncertain times.”

“We’ll continue working to find an effective solution as quickly as possible,” Rowden said.

The issue was a top priority for Parson, who expanded the special session on a supplemental budget last month after receiving requests from legislators to include liability protections. Discussion of the legislation had been delayed until after Thanksgiving due to a COVID outbreak among Senate Republicans and staff.

“None of these groups should be penalized for their efforts to respond to a declared state of emergency,” Parson said at a press conference last month. “They must be able to continue operating and serving the public without risk of unnecessary and senseless claims.”

The Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry and hundreds of businesses had urged Parson to take up the issue after previous attempts to pass COVID-19 liability protections failed.

Businesses have said that potentially costly lawsuits alleging COVID-19 was contracted on their premises is a concern, while opponents of the bill have argued it would protect businesses flouting the rules.

Organizations like AARP Missouri, Missouri NEA, Missouri Nurses Association and Missouri AFL-CIO were among those opposing the bill.

Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence, had previously cautioned against creating a policy that provides “blanket immunity forever for bad actors.” In a statement Tuesday night, he said that Parson’s request will help get CARES Act funds out to Missourians.

“Hundreds of millions of dollars in COVID-19 relief has been sitting in state coffers for far too long,” Rizzo said. “The legislature needs to be laser focused on getting these dollars out to the families, schools, and businesses suffering from this pandemic. Keeping the special session limited to this singular purpose makes sense.”

The Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys opposed the bill, warning it would have unintended consequences and infringe on Missourians’ 7th Amendment rights to a trial by jury.

Brett Emison, the association’s immediate past president, said in an email Tuesday he was pleased with Parson’s decision.

“As COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations, and deaths continue to increase, our lawmakers should be focused on reducing the spread of infection,” Emison wrote. “They should not be restricting the fundamental constitutional protections of all Missourians in order to protect those who would irresponsibly spread this disease, put them at risk, and subject them to harm.”

The initial language of the proposed bill would have granted protections for property owners, healthcare providers and a person who “designs, manufactures, labels, sells, distributes, or donates” a product in response to an emergency.

Under the proposed bill’s initial language, businesses would be protected not just from litigation stemming from the pandemic — but also under declared states of emergency in the future.

The bill also specifically addresses healthcare providers and gives them protection from lawsuits over injuries, illnesses and deaths in cases of negligence, unless it’s proven it was the result of “malicious misconduct or conduct that intentionally caused damage.”

It also notes they would not be liable for civil damages or administrative sanctions for failure in the delivery or “nondelivery of health care necessitated by the emergency.”

Dan Mehan, president of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, previously said that “nondelivery” of care could translate to the cancellation of elective surgeries or other delays due to the pandemic.

This story has been updated since it was first published.