During the COVID-19 pandemic, business owners and policymakers have had to walk a balancing act between acknowledging the genuine dangers of the coronavirus outbreak and the terrible economic realities attendant to shutting down or restricting businesses.
Keeping businesses open during the pandemic — a necessity because people still needed many of those businesses, and those businesses needed to survive — was a health risk for business owners, the employees, and the customers.
How much of that risk should business owners be liable for?
"Businesses need to be protected from lawsuits," Allison Ritter, spokesperson for the National Federation of Independent Businesses, said on this episode of Plain Talk. Her group represents more than 2,000 businesses in North Dakota alone. Almost all of them see the need for legislation, making it clear what pandemic-era risks business owners are liable for and which they aren't.
Ritter's group and other business interests are pushing for legislation that would limit liability for businesses that have opened and will continue to open during the outbreak.
Three bills in the state House in Bismarck are addressing this issue. House Bill 1271, introduced by Rep. Marvin Nelson, D-Rolla, was already killed in a floor vote. House Bill 1376, submitted by Rep. Jim Kasper, R-Fargo, just got a "do pass" recommendation in committee and is headed to a floor vote.
But the most comprehensive bill, and the one Ritter and her group prefers, is House Bill 1175, introduced by Rep. Michael Howe, R-Fargo, has already been approved by the House on a 77-17 vote and sent to the Senate for consideration.
"A person is immune from civil liability for an act or omission resulting in damage or injury sustained from exposure or potential exposure to COVID — 19 if the act or omission was in substantial compliance or was consistent with a federal or state statute, regulation, or order related to COVID — 19 which was applicable to the person or activity at issue at the time of the alleged exposure or potential exposure," that bill reads.
Under that language, as long as a business owner took the precautions laid out by the local, state, and/or federal government, they're protected from liability. Bad actors can still be held accountable, but those who operated prudently have a shield.
Ritter likened this to the responsibility business owners have for clearing snow from their premises. If they leave the snow and ice and someone gets hurt, they're liable, but if they take appropriate steps to clear the snow and remove the ice and someone gets hurt anyway, their liability is greatly diminished.
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Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.