Minnesota’s businesses have been on the front lines fighting the COVID-19 pandemic from the very beginning. Deemed essential, manufacturers, grocery stores and others have worked hard to keep supply chains moving and to produce food, health care equipment and daily essentials so that most Minnesotans could stay safe at home. They have risen to the challenges of COVID-19 in every respect.
But because manufacturers and other businesses kept operating during the most confusing days of the crisis, and will continue to operate as we try to sustain our economy safely, many are now threatened unfairly with a wide range of baseless and unwarranted lawsuits.
For example, Minnesota manufacturers are at the forefront of producing critical medical supplies and other goods to protect health care workers and prevent the spread of the virus. Many have even shifted operations to make products they don’t normally make to alleviate shortages on the front lines of the crisis: personal protective equipment, hand sanitizer, face shields and more. Manufacturers did not wait around—they deployed their teams quickly and courageously to answer the call for help.
These businesses adapted quickly and constantly to equip their facilities and employees with protective tools and new protocols. Some have spent millions of dollars to alter production lines and processes and have required temperature checks, facial coverings, social distancing and enhanced cleaning to meet ever-evolving guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration as well as from Minnesota and even local regulators. However, businesses seeking to do the right thing are now facing threats of litigation for the spread of the virus, even when there is no reliable way to track the source of an infection.
Reports from one law firm’s COVID-19 complaint tracker show that monthly filings of COVID-19-related liability lawsuits in Minnesota have more than doubled between April and June. Lawsuits like these—which do little to advance justice or protect public safety—disrupt production and threaten jobs, leading to less economic security for families and communities.
Manufacturers have been crucial to our COVID-19 recovery efforts—both economically and medically. It is critical that businesses are able to re-open safely without incurring unnecessary litigation risks. These companies need sensible liability protections for the workplace to continue their operations effectively. At the same time, thoughtful liability protections for companies that do their best to keep people safe from COVID-19 would be a powerful incentive to ensure companies of all kinds continue to follow and implement guidance, even when it is costly to do so. That is why manufacturers, the Minnesota Chamber and other businesses nationwide are calling on Congress to enact commonsense reforms to restrict these dangerous lawsuits while still allowing legitimate lawsuits to move forward. We also support similar state legislation introduced to advance similar protections.
The National Association of Manufacturers recently developed a blueprint for how Congress should address COVID-19 liability. These temporary, narrow changes seek to safeguard honest businesses that are working in the best interest of the country and their employees’ health while making clear that bad actors will still face liability, as they well deserve. By preventing this abuse of our legal system during the current emergency, Congress would protect essential manufacturers from costly lawsuits that benefit neither plaintiff nor defendant—while still holding any willfully reckless businesses accountable.
There is no question that COVID-19 will continue to impact every community, family and industry for the foreseeable future. And if lawmakers act on these needed reforms, we can all be assured that manufacturers and all businesses will survive these challenging times, working to overcome the health crisis and protect patients, frontline workers, employees and customers.
Kelly is senior vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary for the National Association of Manufacturers in Washington, D.C. Kadoun is vice president for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, Minnesota’s manufacturing association.