August 11, 2020

Mississippi bill would shield groups from lawsuits over coronavirus exposure

The Mississippi Senate is working to limit lawsuits by customers who say they were exposed to the new coronavirus at businesses or medical offices.

Senate Bill 3049 would shield businesses, health care providers, religious organizations and other entities from lawsuits related to COVID-19 if they show a “good faith” effort to follow public health guidelines.

Republican Gov. Tate Reeves has pushed for the bill. If it lands on his desk and he signs it, the bill would take effect retroactively to March 14.

“In the beginning of this thing, nobody really knew what to do. Should you wear a mask, should you not, should you do this, should you do that? It provides some protection for our essential business who did remain open,” Senate Judiciary A Committee Chairwoman Sally Doty said during a hearing on the bill Tuesday.

Doty, a Republican from Brookhaven, said fear of litigation has stopped businesses from providing services the last several months. She said the problem is still persistent now that the state is reopening.

The bill would still allow people to sue if plaintiffs can show “clear and convincing evidence” that a business owner acted with “actual malice or willful, intentional misconduct.”

“It still allows recovery of damages if there is a bad actor,” Doty said.

The bill is being introduced after Reeves suggested it during news briefings on the virus. It cleared the Judiciary A Committee by a voice vote Tuesday and will move to the full Senate for consideration.

Several Republican lawmakers praised the bill, including Sen. David Parker of Olive Branch, who runs an optometry and ophthalmology practice.

“There, really and truly, is a fear out there, that you may do a procedure on somebody to try to help them with that condition, and even taking the greatest precautions you can in the operating facility, they may develop COVID. … There is a fear in the medical community that I see that if they go back to doing procedures too early than they will be punished for it,” Parker said.

Democratic Sen. Derrick Simmons of Greenville, a lawyer, asked why the bill caps damages at $250,000 for those who prove that a business owner acted maliciously when the state usually caps non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases at $500,000. Doty said lawmakers are trying to balance the needs of business owners and those of the public.