NASHVILLE — A controversial Tennessee bill to provide sweeping legal protections from COVID-19 lawsuits filed against businesses, schools, churches and other nonprofit entities easily cleared its first hurdles in Republican-run Senate and House committees on Tuesday.

Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s legislation substantially raises the legal bar for anyone filing suit alleging loss, damage, injury or death from the coronavirus must prove a defendant’s “gross negligence or willful misconduct.”

The measure applies to lawsuits filed on or before Aug. 3, 2020, the day Lee issued his call for the General Assembly to come back to the Capitol for a special session after a similar bill imploded on the House floor in June. That was the result of bipartisan concerns over the prior bill’s retroactive restrictions, which applied to lawsuits going back as far as March 5.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Mike Bell, R-Riceville, said the legislation is necessary to provide liability protections to various organizations.

“If you don’t think they’re coming, I don’t know what’s being advertised in your area … but I know there’s at least one law firm in Chattanooga casting a net and saying if you feel you’ve been harmed by COVID, call us.”

Bell said the intent of the legislation is to “raise the bar” to prevent what he called “frivolous lawsuits. The point is not that someone thinks they can win one of these suits, the point is to get it to court and to get a settlement. It’s not to ‘win.'”

Sen. Sara Kyle, D-Memphis, an attorney, countered that Tennessee law already provides high protections for those being sued and that it’s already hard for anyone to prove in court that they had contracted the virus at a particular place.

“If someone negligently infects another person, the person who got sick or died will have to pay instead of the negligent person who infected them,” Kyle said. “The biggest beneficiaries of this bill are not churches, they’re not hospitals, they’re not schools or businesses. The biggest beneficiaries of this bill are insurance companies, who never will have a judgment against them.”

The bill “transfers the costs of behavior during this pandemic from negligent people and their insurance companies to people who got sick through no fault of their own. If this bill becomes law, there is virtually no circumstances in which a person can bring a successful COVID-based lawsuit,” Kyle said.

It passed on a 7-2 vote with both Bell and Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, voting in favor of the measure. The companion bill cleared the House Judiciary Committee as well. No vote tallies were immediately listed on the legislative website.

A similar debate played out earlier in the Senate panel on a bill sponsored by Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Jeff Yarbro of Nashville. The measure seeks to exclude businesses that blatantly fail to protect their employees and customers.

Pointing to cases involving Nashville’s bars and clubs on lower Broadway, Yarbro noted Kid Rock’s Big Ass Honky Tonk ignored safety precautions with hundreds of patrons crammed into the bar. Some businesses, said Yarbro, an attorney, have posted signs saying COVID-19 masks are not required or even allowed.

“All this legislation would say is we are going to presume if you have given notice of no intent to follow COVID guidelines, there is a presumption that you acted with gross negligence.” Anyone infected by the virus would still have to prove it occurred at a specific place, no easy task Yarbro said. “But it at least would give people a fair shot at relief.”

Given most businesses are “trying to do right,” Yarbro said, the protections should not be extended to “people who are flouting public health.”

Bell said that “sounds like gross negligence” and said he didn’t believe the bill would provide those businesses “safe harbor. From what you’ve described, that’s the very definition of gross negligence.”

Lawmakers are also working on two other bills, one is a telemedicine bill sponsored by Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, which senators left in limbo during the regular session when they abruptly adjourned after the COVID-19 liability bill died in the House. It would require insurers to reimburse Tennessee-based doctors and other professionals at the same rates granted to out-of-state providers who are part of an insurer’s network.

That appears to have sufficient support in both chambers.

Lawmakers are also wrestling with a controversial bill aimed at boosting penalties against protesters who have been demonstrating for some two months over social justice issues.

The bill enhances criminal penalties for camping on state property — a group of demonstrators, mostly young Black people — for weeks seeking an audience with Lee over their concerns regarding systemic racism and other issues. And it also boosts penalties for vandalism and destruction of public property.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.


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