Bill shielding Missouri businesses from most COVID-related lawsuits heads to governor

Its passage buttons up a top priority for Gov. Mike Parson, who has wanted to see protections passed since last year

Members of the Missouri House of Representatives celebrate the close of the 2021 legislative session
Members of the Missouri House of Representatives celebrate the close of the 2021 legislative session. (Photo by Tim Bommel/House Communications)

In the last hour of the 2021 legislative session, the Missouri House sent a sweeping bill that would shield businesses from most COVID related lawsuits to the governor’s desk.

Despite an attempt to kill Senate Bill 51 in the final minutes of the session, it was passed out of the House by a vote of 97 to 57 Friday.

Its passage buttons up a top priority for Gov. Mike Parson. While Parson had said he wanted it to be one of the first pieces of legislation to hit his desk, it ended up being the last bill debated during the session. 

Parson had expanded a special session’s scope to include COVID liability protections last fall, but reversed course weeks later and asked lawmakers to take the bill up in January instead.

“Unfortunately, we didn’t pass it last year like we should have,” said Speaker Pro Tem John Wiemann, an O’Fallon Republican and the bill’s handler in the House.  “But now here we are, at this time, with the opportunity to still get it done and help protect our businesses and individuals.”

On Thursday, two dueling bills that touched on COVID liability protections both passed out of key committees, allowing either to be brought up for debate. But by Friday afternoon, the House was left with few options after tensions on the other side of the building led to the Senate suddenly adjourning four hours early.

That meant that House Bill 1358, a pared down version of the protections sponsored by Rep. Ben Baker, R-Neosho, was dead.

That didn’t stop some House members from expressing their opposition and attempting to strike down the last remaining vehicle to pass COVID liability protections.

“My amendment offers the best of both worlds. It protects brick and mortars from baloney COVID liability lawsuits,” said Rep. Wes Rogers, D-Kansas City. “It protects our neighbors and friends and family in nursing homes that are being treated negligently by out of state corporations.”

But Roger’s amendment, which would have scaled back some of the high standards, failed to be adopted. Wiemann warned that any changes to the legislation at this stage would end the bill’s chances without the Senate in session to approve them.

Senate Bill 51, sponsored by Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, R-Parkville, would shield businesses and healthcare providers from most COVID-related lawsuits, unless a high standard of proof could be met.

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’s premises.

It also offers explicit exemptions for religious organizations unless the plaintiff “can prove intentional misconduct.”

It had been both killed and revived in recent weeks, and originally passed out of the Senate in late February following nearly 15 hours of debate for its approval earlier that month.

Opponents of the legislation, like the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys and AARP Missouri, have argued it is a solution in search of a problem, and that the bill would have unintended consequences by setting a high bar for plaintiffs to meet.

“Immunity bills like SB 51 serve only one purpose: To protect wrongdoers,” Brett Emison, the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys’ immediate past president, said in a statement after the bill’s passage.

Emison said while there hasn’t been an avalanche of lawsuits against businesses, he has “already seen defendants attempting (to) use similar Covid-immunity protections to avoid responsibility for conduct that is completely unrelated to the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Meanwhile, supporters of the bill, like the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, applauded its final passage Friday.

“The threat of this litigation has loomed over every employer in Missouri. It is clear that we need to protect our employers as they seek to reopen,” the Chamber’s president and CEO Daniel Mehan said in a statement. “With this bill now passed, employers should have greater confidence as they get Missourians back to work.”

House lawmakers who had previously voted the bill down in committee had instead rallied behind Baker’s more narrowly-tailored version that would have been limited to premises exposure.

The bill would establish the “True COVID Liability Act,” and would exempt premises’ owners from criminal or civil liability in the case of exposure to a contagious disease, unless the owner “knowingly and purposely” caused someone to be exposed to a clinical disease.

In addition, it would also impose limits on measures used to curb the spread of a contagious disease, like quarantining someone who hasn’t tested positive for the virus in question or limiting activities on a private property.

“We had a good COVID liability bill. It got through,” Rep. Ashley Aune, D-Kansas City, said in opposition to Senate Bill 51 Friday. “Let’s just leave this alone.”

Baker had previously said if he had the opportunity, he would amend Senate Bill 51 to mirror his version. But on Friday he never got the chance.

This story has been updated since it was first published.