COVID liability bill voted down in Missouri House committee

The proposal, a priority of the governor and chamber of commerce, faces long odds with the end of session looming

The Missouri House chamber (photo courtesy of Tim Bommel/Missouri House Communications)

A bill that would shield businesses from most COVID-related lawsuits and is one of Gov. Mike Parson’s top legislative priorities was voted down in a House committee Monday night — making the path for its passage slim with only three weeks left in the legislative session.

Senate Bill 51, sponsored by Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, R-Parkville, was voted down in the House Rules-Legislative Oversight Committee by a vote of three in favor to seven against.

Republican Reps. Doug Richey, Hannah Kelly and Mike Haffner voted in support of the bill. Meanwhile every other member of the committee, four Republicans and three Democrats, voted against. One member was absent.

Rep. Wes Rogers, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said his opposition to the bill was twofold.

“We’re talking about a bill that would have given negligent nursing homes blanket immunity from liability lawsuits,” said Rogers, of Kansas City. “And to me, that’s just sinister, frankly.”

At the same time, Rogers said small business owners had come forward to express concern that the bill would create a new cause of action that could expose them to even more liability.

“I think when you’re talking about protecting small business, when you’re talking about protecting your grandparents, that crosses party lines,” Rogers said. 

There was little discussion on Monday’s vote during the hearing, but Rep. Ashley Aune, D-Kansas City, said she knew the bill didn’t have the votes to pass before the meeting even started. Aune, who voted against the bill, said she was also concerned with making elderly residents in nursing homes potentially even more vulnerable through the legislation.

The topic has been a priority for Parson since last year. He had expanded a special session’s scope to include COVID liability protections, but reversed course weeks later and asked lawmakers to take the bill up in January instead.

Parson reiterated his support last week, telling reporters it was one of his top three priorities for this legislative session and still “a huge issue.”

“We should have got that done in December,” Parson said. “But that’s still a reality for our hospitals, for our schools, for our businesses out there. I think that protection needs to be out there.”

The governor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday’s vote. Luetkemeyer declined an interview request Tuesday afternoon.

After nearly 15 hours of debate, Luetkemeyer’s bill was granted initial approval in the Senate in February. Residents would have up to one year to pursue legal action in instances of medical malpractice and two years in cases of product liability or after an alleged exposure, like claiming the virus was contracted on a business’ premises.

Houses of worship and religious organizations would also be immune from most COVID-related lawsuits unless a plaintiff “can prove intentional misconduct.” A sunset provision stipulates the bill will expire four years after it’s effective.

The bill had the backing of hundreds of businesses and groups like the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, who had warned of a potential wave of lawsuits to come.

Opponents to the bill, like the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys and AARP Missouri, warned such lawsuits weren’t currently an issue and that the bill would have unintended consequences, setting a high bar for plaintiffs to meet.

Brett Emison, the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys’ immediate past president, said the bill’s denial was a step toward ensuring Missourians’ fundamental right to jury trial is protected.

“What bills like this that protect wrongdoers do, is risk creating a race to the bottom,” Emison said, “where there are businesses who do the right thing that are being taken advantage of by businesses who don’t, who cut corners, who put people at risk.”

It remains to be seen if COVID liability protections will still pass in some form this session. Emison said the issue isn’t dead yet.

“Until that final gavel closes, there’s always a possibility,” he said. “And so we’re constantly looking at all of the bills coming up, because you never know what might end up being a vehicle.”

Other bills, like House Bill 1358, sponsored by Rep. Ben Baker, R-Neosho, include more scaled-down legal protections.

In addition to barring certain restrictions to contain the spread of a contagious disease, House Bill 1358 also stipulates that no premises owner shall be subject to criminal or civil liability in the case of exposure to a contagious disease, unless the owner “knowingly and purposely, and with malice” did so or caused someone to be exposed to a clinical disease.

The bill passed 10-1 Monday out of the same committee that voted down Senate Bill 51.

This story has been updated since it was first published.