A new bill concept prepared for the Oregon Legislature's 2021 session, or for a special session, seeks to shield school districts from COVID-19-related lawsuits.
Legislative Concept 2330, co-sponsored by Reps. Karin Power (D-Milwaukie) and Janeen Sollman (D-Hillsboro), would mandate that "a person may not bring a claim for damages related to COVID-19 infection suffered as a result of acts or omissions performed by a school district" while operating an education program and when the district is acting in compliance with COVID-19 emergency rules.
The shield would not apply to "reckless, wanton or intentional misconduct," nor would it prohibit workers' compensation claims, Occupational Safety and Health claims, or claims filed under state and federal anti-discrimination, anti-retaliation, wage and hour laws, according to the bill text.
Power says that the bill concept would allow school districts to again open their grounds to outside use.
Since the latest renewal period, Power says, insurance brokers are not offering schools contagious disease coverage. She added that third-party groups using school grounds for sports events, for example, often don't have insurance coverage to protect against pandemic-related claims.
"There is no insurance product currently available to school districts" to protect them from contagious disease claims, Powers says. "This [legislation] is both an incentive for schools to really double down when they reopen and make sure they are being as safe as they can, and a way to limit their liability for third parties who are using those grounds."
The bill concept has already drawn opposition.
The Oregon Trial Lawyers Association says that, without the threat of lawsuits, schools won't be as incentivized to maintain strict safety standards. It could also curb working peoples' opportunity to challenge workplace conditions in court, according to Arthur Towers, the political director for OTLA.
"It has a chilling impact," Towers said. He added that the children who need face-to-face learning the most—such as children with disabilities, or students who need help learning English or kids who rely on schools for meals—could be impacted significantly.
"If there is a lack of safety in schools, there's going to be a disproportionate impact on those types of students," Towers said.
On the national level, liability protections, which have been a point of contention amid COVID relief bill discussions, are typically a Republican-led issue. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) are among those leading the charge on liability protections for businesses and organizations.
The responsibility to decide such protections will likely fall on the shoulders of local governments. On Tuesday, The Hill reported, McConnell proposed punting decisions of liability protections to state governments instead of the federal government.