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Governor signs COVID liability bill

Gov. Mike Parson has signed a bill intended to offer liability protection for health care workers, manufacturers and businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Parson, who had named the law as one of his top priorities, held a signing ceremony for the bill on July 7 at his office in Jefferson City, as well as similar ceremonies at a plastic producer in Fenton and a barbeque restaurant in North Kansas City. It went into effect on Aug. 28.

The new law would protect businesses and health care workers from personal injury lawsuits stemming from exposure to COVID-19, unless the plaintiff can show clear and convincing evidence of recklessness or willful misconduct.

It also would protect manufacturers of items used to combat COVID-19 from products liability suits. The protections would apply to companies that don’t normally make the product, as well as those whose manufacturing process had to be modified during the emergency or whose products were used in a different fashion than normal.

Parson said that pandemic has been “one of the most dramatic emergencies we’ve had” and called on Missourians to remember what local businesses did during the pandemic to remain open.

“When COVID-19 first struck Missouri, health care providers, manufacturers, businesses, churches, schools, and other entities quickly altered their operations to protect public health and accommodate the needs of Missourians, and they should not be penalized for their efforts,” Parson said in a statement.

He added that it would “protect those who helped protect us during some of the hardest days of the pandemic” and thanked lawmakers for legislation “to prevent these unnecessary and frivolous law-suits.”

The bill cleared the Missouri Senate in February following an all-night debate, but it faced stiff winds in the House. After winning committee approval, the House Rules Committee, which must approve bills for floor debate, then voted it down before ultimately reviving it.

Some members championed an alternative measure with simpler language that focused on providing premises liability protections for businesses. The Senate never took up the bill, and the House ultimately passed the final bill in the waning moments of the 2021 legislative session that ended May 14. It was the last bill passed in the session.

Lawmakers had sought to have the bill go into effect immediately upon the governor’s signature. But that effort failed when the Senate fell short of the two-thirds a two-thirds majority required to pass on an emergency basis so it. As a result, the law doesn’t take effect for another seven weeks.

Some supporters have said the law is needed to prevent “predatory COVID-19 litigation,” as the Missouri Chamber of Commerce said in a statement praising Parson for signing the bill. But the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys and Democratic members of the legislature argued there has not been a wave of lawsuits aimed businesses who reopened during the pandemic and tried to follow shifting safety guidelines from health authorities.

It’s not clear if such lawsuits will ever appear. Although many Missouri cities have loosened or eliminated pandemic-related restrictions, the state also leads the nation in new cases relative to its population as the delta variant of COVID-19 has spread in parts of Missouri.

“I actually think this legislation is going to become even more meaningful in the future,” Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, R-Parkville and an attorney who sponsored the bill, said during the ceremony. “I hope that’s not the case, but if it is, I know the state is well positioned to keep our economy running.”

The bill is SB 51.

  • Also on July 7, the governor signed a bill that provides extra funding for the Second Injury Fund, a state program that covers claims by workers whose preexisting conditions are made worse by an on-the-job injury. In 2014, lawmakers temporarily increased the surcharge that pays for the fund, pre-venting it from becoming insolvent. The surcharge, which is addedto workers’ compensation insurance premiums that businesses pay, now runs until 2023.

The bill is SB 303.