Republican leader pushes for expanded COVID-19 liability protections

SPRINGFIELD - The top Republican in the state Senate has introduced a bill to shield health care providers and others from being held responsible for injuries or deaths related to COVID-19 exposure.

Sen. Dan McConchie of Hawthorn Woods said Senate Bill 2140 would provide civil liability protection to people working for businesses, manufacturers, schools, institutions of higher education, units of local government and religious institutions.

Last April, Gov. J.B. Pritzker extended civil liability protections to health care workers, health care volunteers and hospitals in one of his executive orders. But the executive order expired in the end of June and was not reissued.

McConchie said the bill applies to individuals in these settings, as long as an individual's action at issue was "in substantial compliance or was consistent with any federal or State statute, rule, regulation, order, or public health guidance related to COVID-19 that was applicable to the person or activity at issue at the time of the alleged exposure or potential exposure."

It would not apply in circumstances where a person in these settings "intended to cause harm," or acted with "actual malice," he said. Actions that constitute gross negligence or willful misconduct are also not protected from liability, he said.

McConchie presented SB 2140 in the Senate Judiciary Torts Subcommittee during a subject matter hearing Wednesday, which means it was discussed but no action was taken on the bill, which has one co-sponsor, fellow Republican Sen. Brian Stewart.

Laws that offer similar civil liability protections to individuals from claims of potential COVID-19 exposure have passed in other states, including Wisconsin and North Carolina.

During the subcommittee hearing, Donovan Griffith, director of government affairs for the Illinois Manufacturers Association, spoke in support of SB 2140.

"I think it's important to point out that we're not giving any group blanket immunity. If there is an actual injury, if there has been willful misconduct, if there is a disregard for risk that leads to an injury, if there has been an act of malice - then these groups would still be liable," Griffith said.

"But this legislation provides us limited and rational protections against lawsuits that threaten to shut down or put out business and essential industries that have contributed so much in our struggle against COVID-19," he added. "Companies have acted in good faith to protect employees and follow available guidelines, they should not be exposed to costly legal fees while they're trying to do the right thing."

The measure is supported by many business, insurance and medical groups, including the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, Illinois Health & Hospital Association, Illinois State Medical Society, Illinois Retail Merchants Association and the Health Care Council of Illinois.

Among the groups opposed to the bill is the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association, which advocates for attorneys who primarily represent individuals in personal injury, medical malpractice and wrongful death cases.

Illinois Trial Lawyers Association President Larry Rogers Jr. said the bill goes too far in affording civil liability protections, essentially "granting broad immunities and heightened standards, with regard to proving liability."

Rogers, who testified during the subcommittee hearing, said the bill represents a "push by both the health care industry and other business groups to excuse corporate neglect regarding care and transmission of COVID-19 virus."

Rogers, who is a partner at the Chicago-based law firm Power Rogers, said the standard for proving civil liability in these types of cases should be a standard of reasonableness.

He said this standard "requires health care providers to act reasonably under circumstances, as judged by other health care professionals" and by U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, and other similar health guidance.

"It requires businesses to act reasonably, under the circumstances, to prevent spreading a deadly virus to their residents, patients, customers and workers. Again, reasonableness, under the circumstances, is a flexible standard decided by a jury, all of whom, by the way, have lived through the same COVID-19 pandemic," Rogers said.

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