The Wyoming Senate introduced a bill in the Legislature’s special session on Friday that would protect businesses from lawsuits by people alleging they were infected by the coronavirus in their establishments and then suing them.
But some senators, including business owners, objected to Senate File 1005 because the special session is intended to focus on the allocation of $1.25 billion granted to the state in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
Those senators said SF1005, of which a mirror bill was introduced in the House, detracted from that mission, bypassed the vetting done by the Judiciary Committee, was submitted so late that some of them hadn’t read it yet, and had potential constitutional problems.
But one of SF1005’s lead sponsors, Sen. Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan and Johnson counties, said protection from liability is as critical as the allocation of the funds.
Businesses and other establishments are reopening as the statewide restrictions to slow the spread of the highly infectious disease are easing, but the coronavirus hasn’t gone away and could be anywhere, Kinskey said.
Their owners have contacted him and other legislators asking if they could be sued if a customer or employee is infected alleging the establishment didn’t follow the best health practices, he said.
“The liability is attaching now as stores reopen,” Kinskey said. “If there’s a lawsuit brought it will be because a business opened up in May or in June, and there will be some allegation that the business did something wrong, and that’s why the customer or the employee caught the disease.”
Kinskey said 895 COVID-related lawsuits have been filed nationally; bills like SF1005 in other states have the support of the retail, restaurant and lodging industries; and Congress is working on something similar.
Wyoming can’t wait, he said. “I believe this is as every bit as critical for us to consider in this special session because it’s essential to restore business confidence.”
The bill would not prevent legal actions against anyone who intentionally infected someone else.
Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Albany, Carbon, Sweetwater counties, said the Legislature can revisit the bill later as it does with other laws.
However, Sen. Cale Case, R-Fremont County, said he sympathizes with business owners because his businesses in Lander have lost hundreds of thousand of dollars.
But he opposes SF1005 because of its late submission, the little time available to debate a bill this significant, and that the Wyoming Constitution says all courts are open to all people.
Kinskey responded that the Wyoming Constitution prevents the Legislature from limiting damages awarded in tort lawsuits, but it does not prevent what kinds of actions that can be brought.
Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Laramie County, said she owns a business near the border of Colorado, where COVID-19 is rampant, understands the potential liability, but the bill has problems.
While it does not exempt individuals or businesses from legal action that intentionally infect people, she asked whether a business that fails to provide masks or sanitizer could be liable.
Nethercott asked if it would violate the terms of Workers’ Compensation that provides compensation to employees for injuries in exchange for their giving up the right to sue their employer.
She also asked, since sole proprietorships are left out, why not have immunity for everyone. The bill doesn’t prevent a business from suing an individual for allegedly spreading the virus.
Kinskey said her concerns could be dealt with in the second and third readings of the bill.
Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Albany County, objected on procedural grounds, saying the bill is a policy bill that could be harmful to the public, not related to the allocation issue, and deserves a full committee process.
And Sen. Affie Ellis, R-Laramie County, said legislators’ constituents need to review the bill.
Ellis sarcastically added that what she’s learned from the discussion and for a future special session that, “I don’t need to bring a bill to a committee, that I can just drop it among you the night before we’re going to meet, and then we’re going to take it up.”
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