Coronavirus lawsuit standards for businesses, health care workers approved in Michigan Senate

LANSING, MI – A slew of guidelines for lawsuits addressing various COVID-19 exposure scenarios was approved during Tuesday and early Wednesday sessions in the Michigan Senate.

A bill guaranteeing immunity for health care workers providing COVID-19 care from civil action was passed 29-8 in the evening hours of the Oct. 13 Senate session. House Bill 6159, sponsored by Rep. Roger Hauck, R-Union Twp., does not hold workers liable for injuries to patients under their care, except in instances of gross negligence.

The bill was sent back to the state House with minor changes in wording before it was approved, 64-37. It will now head to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s desk for potential signature.

The other bill package on the legislature’s docket protects businesses from liability for people who contracted the disease on their premises, except in negligent circumstances. It also protects employees fired for following public health guidelines against the wishes of a business.

The business liability package was sponsored mostly by Republicans, and like they did in the House last month, some of the bills passed along partisan lines in the Senate. As it heads now to Whitmer for consideration, the question is whether her opinion has changed, as she previously called the package “a solution in search of a problem.”

“I know that most businesses are doing the right thing to protect their employees and their customers, because they obviously have a really important incentive to keep everyone safe,” she said Sep. 17 to the Small Business Association of Michigan.

Read more: Michigan House approves bills establishing COVID-19 lawsuit standards

An issue that held up negotiations between Whitmer, the House and the Senate for more than 15 hours and delayed a vote past midnight involved the package being tie-barred to Senate bills 886 and 911, which seek to replace executive orders establishing extended unemployment benefits for workers affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Whitmer has made that a priority for the legislature since she lost her emergency powers under a Supreme Court order earlier this month.

The bills are no longer tie-barred, announced Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield, as all sides were “able to find common ground.” The unemployment benefits bill was approved unanimously in the Michigan House after midnight on Wednesday.

State Sen. Ken Horn, R-Frankenmouth, sponsored the Senate bills and said Tuesday afternoon that he was “optimistic” the Governor would sign both of them, as both his and her staffs worked together during bill review.

“They (were) tie-barred because together they bring great balance in protecting both employees and employers, both public and private sector,” Horn told MLive.

Related: Michigan unemployment pitfalls following Supreme Court ruling could be fixed with Senate bill

House Bill 6030, sponsored by Rep. Thomas Albert, R-Lowell, would create the COVID-19 Response and Reopening Liability Assurance Act. It would establish hospitalization as a minimum threshold for suing a business when a worker is exposed to the virus.

It passed 23-14 in the Senate on Wednesday after being approved 57-49 in the House.

The minimum threshold, defined as the minimum medical condition in the bill, refers to:

  • Hospitalization after a positive test of COVID-19 for at least 24 hours
  • A coronavirus-related condition that restricts someone from working for at least 14 days (not including a 14-day quarantine after a positive test)
  • Death

The bill would also protect businesses developing off-brand PPE and other medical equipment, devices or treatment to combat the virus. Liability would kick in if there were “substantial evidence” the business knew its product was “defective” and contributed to health damage.

The bill would not open any specific civil action by itself, affect rights outlined in the Worker’s Disability Compensation Act nor affect civil immunity or liability of any other kind outside COVID-19 exposure.

House Bill 6031, sponsored by Rep. Tommy Brann, R-Wyoming, and House Bill 6101, sponsored by Rep. Wendell Byrd, D-Detroit, would not hold businesses following public health guidelines liable if an employee contracted COVID-19, unless the employer “willfully exposed” the person to the virus.

House Bill 6031 was approved by a 23-14 vote in the Senate, while House Bill 6101 was approved by a 29-8 mark.

“Willful” means intentional dismissal or indifference to standards set by the Michigan Operational Health and Safety Administration, Center of Disease Control and Prevention, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services or local health departments, according to the bill.

House Bill 6032, sponsored by Rep. Graham Filler, R-DeWitt, would hold employees liable for showing up to work with symptoms or a positive case of COVID-19 or after close contact with a COVID-positive patient. It also bans businesses from firing an employee for complaining about violating public health protocols and guarantees damages for an adverse firing.

The Senate passed the bill 37-0 after passing 73-33 in the House.

An employee would need to be without a fever for 24 hours before being sent to work. They also would not be allowed to show up for work until 10 days after testing positive.

Should the employee be in close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19, they need to isolate for 14 days or test negative to return to work, under the bill. This prohibition doesn’t apply to health care workers, first responders, adult or child-care employees or correctional facility staff.

An employee protesting an adverse firing could file in circuit court and could be awarded at least $5,000 in damages. If a collective bargaining agreement does not comply with these standards, the liability standards would apply once a union renegotiates or ends its existing agreement.

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