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COVID-19 Liability Protection Clears Missouri Senate, Won’t Take Effect Until August

The Missouri Senate, seen here in finishing up work on the state budget in May, has decided to postpone the special legislative session until after the Thanksgiving holiday due to positive cases of the coronavirus.
File | Jaclyn Driscoll
St. Louis Public Radio
The Missouri Senate approved one of Gov. Mike Parson's top priorities on Tuesday, COVID-19 liability protection, but did not pass a clause that would allow it to go into effect immediately.

The Missouri Senate approved one of Gov. Mike Parson’s top priorities on Tuesday, offering protections to businesses from lawsuits related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the super-majority Republican chamber did not have enough votes to tack on an emergency clause that would have allowed the legislation to go into effect immediately. If the proposal makes it through the House and is signed by Parson, it won’t become law until Aug. 28, which is after most will have likely already received their coronavirus vaccine.

The legislation states that a plaintiff must prove that an individual or entity acted recklessly or engaged in willful misconduct that caused exposure to the virus, and that the exposure resulted in personal injury. It allows up to two years to file those lawsuits.

Bill sponsor Tony Luetkemeyer, R-Parkville, said businesses are already struggling to stay open or reopen and cannot survive COVID-19 lawsuits.

“We’ve already started seeing legal advertisements and lawsuits being filed against business owners for their alleged responsibility for someone contracting COVID-19,” Luetkemeyer said. “If these lawsuits proceed unchecked, many more businesses, many more jobs will be lost.”

Luetkemeyer said the Missouri Constitution does not allow bills to apply retroactively. So, without that emergency clause, “any suits on file before the effective date of the statute would not be impacted.”

The Missouri Chamber of Commerce praised the Senate for passage of the bill but said it was “disappointing to see so many senators side with trial attorneys who are seeking to profit from this pandemic” in not approving the emergency clause.

“There is no reason to delay implementation of this critical legislation,” said Chamber President Daniel Mehan. “As lawmakers continue their work on this legislation we will strongly advocate that this bill lands on Gov. Mike Parson’s desk with an emergency clause.”

A spokesperson for the governor did not immediately respond for comment.

Some have suggested the measure protects bad actors. During a 15-hour filibuster on the bill earlier this month, Luetkemeyer said that wasn’t true.

“The bill simply raises the standard from ordinary negligence to recklessness and requires people show the higher burden of proof to hold a business accountable for a COVID-19 lawsuit,” he said.

The bill passed 20-13. It earned no support from Democrats, and four Republicans voted it down as well. The measure now heads to the Missouri House.

Jaclyn is the Jefferson City statehouse reporter for St. Louis Public Radio.