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Iowa House Republicans Approve Protections For Businesses Against Coronavirus Lawsuits

In this file photo, a worker at a meat processing plant stands side by side other workers.
Courtesy of Oxfam America / file
In this file photo, a worker at a meat processing plant stands side by side other workers.

Iowa businesses and health care providers would have special protections against coronavirus-related lawsuits under a bill House Republicans passed Friday night. Republican leaders took the rare step of setting a vote time of 11 p.m., leaving about 40 minutes for lawmakers to debate the policy.

This comes as COVID-19 outbreaks continue to occur in meatpacking plants and nursing homes in Iowa, resulting in widespread infections and hundreds of deaths.

Under the bill, Iowans wouldn’t be able to sue a business or health care facility unless they were hospitalized or died of COVID-19, or if an act was intended to cause harm or constitutes malice. It also says facilities will not be liable for civil damages related to coronavirus exposure unless they “recklessly disregard” a risk of exposure or intentionally expose someone to the virus.

Rep. Gary Carlson, R-Muscatine, said uncertainty is holding back the economy as it tries to recover from coronavirus-related business closures.

“[Businesses are] scared to death that they’re going to be sued when they have tried to do their best to substantially accomplish and follow the regulations, the proclamations, the changes,” Carlson said. “And we have to provide them some certainty that if they are doing that, that they can successfully restart their company.”

The bill provides immunity from coronavirus-related civil lawsuits if the business or facility “was in substantial compliance or was consistent with” virus safety guidelines or rules from the CDC, CMS, OSHA, the governor’s office, or any state agency including the Iowa Department of Public Health.

It applies to lawsuits filed regarding incidents starting Jan. 1, 2020, onward.

Democrats said the bill provides “blanket immunity” for bad actors.

“I think that the bill you have almost rewards bad actors and doesn’t protect those that are the good actors,” said House Minority Leader Todd Prichard, D-Charles City.

He added he wants businesses to recover, and he wants workers and employers to feel safe.

Rep. Brian Meyer, D-Des Moines, claimed that a person who suffers reduced lung function from COVID-19 but wasn’t hospitalized would not be able to sue a business or employer for exposure, even if it was intentional or reckless. And he said if a worker’s family member died of COVID-19 after a worker unknowingly spread the virus to their family, they would not be able to file a lawsuit under this bill.

“I guarantee you at some point, somebody’s going to write you an email and say, ‘Why did you vote for this?’” Meyer said. “And you’re all going to respond with, ‘Well, that’s not what I thought I was voting on.’ You all better think about it.”

Democrats proposed amendments to extend workers’ compensation to people who had to continue going to work during the pandemic and to only protect businesses if they were in substantial compliance with public health guidance. Republicans voted down or did not allow votes on Democrats’ amendments.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter