Lawmakers consider protection for SC businesses, schools from COVID-19 related lawsuits

Updated: Jul. 20, 2020 at 3:42 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - A recent survey shows about 64 percent of South Carolina business owners are concerned about lawsuits over possible exposure of COVID-19 in the workplace, according to the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce.

Chamber President and CEO Ted Pitts says he has been working with state lawmakers for months to get a temporary, limited liability safe harbor bill passed.

“Protection for businesses that are good actors, that followed protocols that worked to keep employees and customers safe,” Pitts said. “It’s a no-brainer from the business community perspective, but you shouldn’t be surprised there are trial attorneys out there that don’t want this passed.”

Pitts said business owners, healthcare providers and schools following DHEC or CDC guidelines need protection from someone who could claim they got the virus at their workplace or school.

“And if there’s a business out there not doing what they are supposed to do to keep their employees or customers safe then they ought to be liable,” he added. “But I think what this does is set the ground rules. It says follow guidelines and then you won’t be liable.”

According to the Chamber, more than 20 lawsuits have been filed in the state and that number is growing.

It’s been a big topic of conversation for schools, colleges and universities as many plan to reopen in just a few weeks. South Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities President and CEO Dr. Jeffrey Perez said 19 of the 20 schools plan to reopen in the fall.

“What we’re looking for is the opportunity to know what guidances we should be using, and if we use them we’ll have temporary protection from liability for the duration of this crisis,' he said. “And this really creates an incentive for business including colleges to follow those guidances.”

He said most of their students advocated for coming back to in-person classes.

“As we’re bringing the students back, clearly our number one priority is to take every necessary precaution we can to provide to for a healthy environment.”

Pitts said 37 states have some kind of similar liability protection legislation and was disappointed when the General Assembly didn’t pass it over the summer.

“South Carolina is lagging behind because our policy makers haven’t taken it up yet,” Pitts said. However, he’s hopeful they will address the issue when they return at the end of the summer.

“The sooner we can get legislation like this, the better,” Perez said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham has also petitioned for this kind of protection on the national level.

“The federal role in creating liability protections needs to be limited,” Graham said. “We’re not going to preempt all state laws here about everything. We need to make sure that bad actors are not given a break, but that the people who are trying to do it right can reopen their businesses in their communities, schools and colleges with the assurance that if you practice the right procedures that you don’t have to worry about getting sued on top of everything else.”

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