Late Wednesday, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp signed legislation that adds Georgia to the list of states limiting liability as to claims brought against businesses by customers, employees, and members of the public who contract or allege exposure to COVID-19. The new law became effective immediately and will expire July 2021. Georgia joins Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Utah and Wyoming in enacting virus-related limited liability laws applying to most or all businesses.
The state laws do not prohibit a lawsuit from the outset, but more generally provide a defense for businesses against virus-related claims. The businesses will still need to defend themselves and prove they were not grossly negligent (or whatever the relevant state’s identified standard). While there are other laws enacted or pending in other states on a more narrow basis, there is not a consistent standard in place.
As to a federal law, Republicans generally favor and democratic leaders have opposed giving businesses a liability shield. The Republican Senate unveiled legislation two weeks ago that would shift coronavirus-related claims into a dedicated federal court process and provide businesses with a safe harbor against certain employment claims if they can show they generally complied with applicable health and safety guidelines. It is unlikely the proposed legislation will become law, certainly as written.
One article reports that nearly 50 COVID-19 related lawsuits have been filed relating to conditions of employment, including exposure to the virus or the lack of protective equipment. That number will no doubt rise quickly. Much like the response to the coronavirus has been left to each state to monitor and manage, liability exposure for businesses seems destined to continue on the same path.