Big Sky Roundup

Amendments coming to COVID-19 liability shield bill

By: - January 8, 2021 3:54 pm

Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, testifies in support of SB65. (MPAN)

Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick intends to amend legislation he proposed that would shield businesses and non-profits from coronavirus-related civil liability in response to concerns from committee witnesses he heard Friday, the Great Falls Republican told the Daily Montanan.

The bill, a top priority of Gov. Greg Gianforte, would increase the legal standards necessary to bring a case against a business, church, hospital or other organization if the would-be plaintiff believes they contracted COVID-19 due to negligence on the part of the proprietor. Gianforte has tied the passage of the bill to his rescission of the statewide mask mandate.

These cases are already difficult to win, but Fitzpatrick believes that increasing the legal standards to gross negligence — something that essentially amounts to intentional wrongdoing — he can spare some small businesses from frivolous lawsuits, though opponents of the bill have pointed out that virtually no such cases exist in the state as is.

The Senate Business, Labor and Economic Affairs Committee debated the bill this morning and will vote on it next week. Fitzpatrick said Friday that he plans on more narrowly tailoring the bill to only address private sector entities, as SB65 would as written also shield government entities — such as state hospitals or prisons — from similar liability. He said he plans on running separate legislation to address the public sector, but wants to focus on businesses for now.

His second amendment responds to concerns from opponents of the bill including Al Smith, the director of the Montana Trial Lawyers Association, who pointed out in committee this morning that the bill’s language would essentially only allow a civil suit if a hospital listed a COVID-19 patient’s primary cause of death or hospitalization as the coronavirus itself, even though current Health Department guidelines suggest that medical records list the most immediate cause — such as acute respiratory failure — first, with COVID or COVID-related pneumonia as secondary causes.

“I want to make sure we’re encompassing all claims, it was not my intent to narrow it down to just severe cases,” Fitzpatrick said.

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Arren Kimbel-Sannit
Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Arren Kimbel-Sannit is an Arizona-bred journalist who has covered politics, policy and power building at every level of government. Before getting his dose of northern exposure, Arren worked as a reporter in all manner of Arizona newsrooms, for the Dallas Morning News and for POLITICO in Washington, D.C. He has a special interest in how land-use decisions affect working-class people, which he displayed through reporting on the epidemic of pedestrian deaths in the U.S. for the Los Angeles Times and PBS Newshour. He's also covered housing, agriculture, the Trump presidency and more.