March 22, 2023

South Carolina lawmakers resume debate over providing businesses immunity from COVID-19 lawsuits

The South Carolina Legislature again is considering extending protections for businesses and health care providers from COVID-19-related lawsuits.

The Senate Judiciary Subcommittee heard testimony Tuesday from South Carolina’s business community on a bill that would provide limited protections from pandemic-related lawsuits to entities and individuals faithfully following COVID-19 public health guidance.

Joint Resolution 147 would not give protection to entities or individuals acting recklessly or intentionally or fail to make any attempt to follow public health protocols.

South Carolina Chamber of Commerce interim CEO Swati Patel told the committee the bill would provide reasonable protections for good actors and “give a boost to business.”

“Even though we are 10 months into this pandemic, all sectors of industry and small businesses, health care providers and higher education institutions continue to say to us that COVID liability exposure is still one of their top concerns,” Patel said. “From the start of the pandemic to late last year, those concerns have not diminished.”

Since March, 34 COVID-19-related lawsuits have been filed in South Carolina, said Richards McCrae, president of the South Carolina Association of Justice. McCrae, who spoke against the legislation, said his organization sees the bill as a solution in search of a problem.

“In the absence of a broad-based blanket immunity, all businesses actually have an incentive to strictly adhere to guidelines, so as to avoid litigation,” McCrae said. “When you give them broad-based immunity, it undermines that.”

As written, the bill would apply retroactively to March 13, when Gov. Henry McMaster declared a public health emergency related to COVID-19. It would apply to any lawsuit filed through 180 days after the final COVID-19-related state of emergency is lifted.

Protection would provide some stability for businesses that have faced tremendous pressures because of the pandemic, South Carolina Manufacturers Alliance President Sara Hazzard said.

“They’ve had to respond and understand and adhere to new federal employment laws,” Hazzard said. “There were closures and shutdowns in other states and in countries around the world that caused supply chain disruptions. They’ve had to learn how to handle what to do when an employee tests positive and how to conduct contact tracing, and how to deal with domestic and international travel restrictions. And now they are anxiously awaiting and preparing for the vaccine rollout.”

South Carolina is one of the last of the states in the southeast to have COVID-19-related liability protections in place for businesses. North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas and Kentucky have passed some kind of pandemic-related safe harbor law in the past year.

This article was originally published on South Carolina lawmakers resume debate over providing businesses immunity from COVID-19 lawsuits

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