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MT Business Liability Bill: Necessary, or a Shield for 'Bad Actors?'

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Does protecting businesses from liability for customers' COVID-19 infections excuse those who haven't made safety precautions a priority? Montana legislators are debating the issue. (DanRentea/Adobe Stock)
Does protecting businesses from liability for customers' COVID-19 infections excuse those who haven't made safety precautions a priority? Montana legislators are debating the issue. (DanRentea/Adobe Stock)
January 28, 2021

HELENA, Mont. -- Lawmakers in Montana and other states are considering legislation to give businesses liability protection in lawsuits related to COVID-19.

But opponents say it could have unintended consequences.

Supporters of the measure are expecting a flood of lawsuits against businesses holding them liable for exposing someone to coronavirus, and some Montana lawmakers say Senate Bill 65 is needed to reopen the state's economy.

Al Smith, executive director of the Montana Trial Lawyers Association, warned it could be a shield for irresponsible businesses.

"It's the worst example, I think, of good intentions gone awry," Smith argued. "It is not going to do what people think it's going to do. It allows bad actors to get away with negligent conduct."

But the measure is sailing through the Legislature and could be passed as soon as today. The legislation is a priority for Gov. Greg Gianforte.

Smith noted the bill would protect medical facilities like nursing homes from possible negligence because they would only need to say they took "reasonable measures" to defend against liability issues.

He finds the bill unnecessary, and laid out what would happen if someone wanted to sue a business for being exposed to COVID-19 as the law stands now.

"'In the 14 days prior to you being diagnosed, did you go to the grocery store? Did you go to the hardware store, did you meet any friends, or is Joe's the only place that you went?'" Smith described. "And for most people it's going to be, 'Oh, well I did go to these other places.'"

In short, he concluded, there would be no way to prove one business in particular led to virus exposure.

Backers of the bill call it a preemptive measure.

Smith added Montana's Constitution guarantees people can access the courts and, in that same article, contains the right to keep and bear arms. He doesn't believe it would go over well with lawmakers if a bill was introduced to restrict someone's right to bear arms based on the possibility that someone in the future might be killed by a gun.

"That's essentially what we're doing is, we're preemptively restricting people's constitutional rights," Smith contended.

At least 20 other states are considering similar legislation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - MT