A key policy decision—whether to shield businesses from lawsuits stemming from COVID-19—won't be made in the Oregon Legislature's special session this week.
Legislative leaders had not placed COVID-19 legal immunity on their short list of bills for this session, but it's now on the agenda for a future special session. Businesses that reopen from stay-home orders fear legal repercussions if something goes wrong.
House Speaker Tina Kotek pledged to prepare such legislation before the next session, after a group of Democrats wrote a letter to leadership expressing the view they needed to take action—not just to protect businesses but also schools and health care facilities.
"We are hearing from entities across the spectrum that one of their biggest concerns right now is the threat they are facing from COVID-19 lawsuits," wrote 10 Democratic representatives in a June 24 letter to leadership and their colleagues. "We have a responsibility to provide some degree of liability protection for those who are acting under the orders of the Governor and are following the public health guidelines the government has provided."
Reps. David Gomberg, Caddy McKeown, Margaret Doherty, Janelle Bynum, Brian Clem, John Lively, Tiffiny Mitchell, Courtney Neron, Jeff Barker and Jeff Reardon signed the letter.
Republicans quickly agreed.
"My office has been flooded with emails and phone calls from organizations, both public and private, seeking relief from the uncertainty surrounding employer liability during this unprecedented time," said House Republican Leader Christine Drazan (R-Canby) in a statement yesterday. "Public and private employers are committed to meeting state and federal guidelines to protect the safety of their employees, students and customers. It's our job as lawmakers to ensure that organizations who are doing everything they have been asked to do by the government are protected from potentially devastating legal threats."
Kotek asked Drazan and Rep. Karin Power (D-Milwaukie) to lead a work group between sessions to address the issue.
"I look forward to receiving recommendations from a work group for potential consideration in a future special session," Kotek wrote in a June 24 email to Drazan.
The question could pit business groups against workers and trial lawyers, all of whom Kotek asked be included in the deliberations.
Oregon Business & Industry, the statewide business group, had asked members to send a form email to legislators, asking them to take up the issue.
"Right now, Oregon businesses are facing unprecedented challenges due to the uncertainties around the COVID-19 crisis, including the potential for unfair lawsuits even when they have done everything the state directed to keep their worksite safe," the form email from Brighter Oregon reads.
The trial lawyers say immunity will hurt workers and also families of people who have died, blocking them from seeking recourse against the "bad actors" among nursing homes and food-processing companies. Healthcare at Foster Creek, for example, already faces two lawsuits. The Portland nursing home, which has the highest number of COVID-19 deaths in Oregon, was shut down over its failures to keep patients safe.
"The people who are hurting people should be held accountable," said Arthur Towers, lobbyist for the Oregon Trial Lawyers Association.