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Covid liability-protection bill sails through MT Senate

Posted at 4:46 PM, Jan 18, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-18 19:42:27-05

HELENA — A bill designed to protect Montana businesses and other entities from “frivolous lawsuits” related to Covid-19 – and which is also a top priority for Gov. Greg Gianforte -- sailed through the state Senate Monday.

The Senate approved Senate Bill 65 on a 37-13 vote, sending it to the Montana House – moments after it suspended its rules to forego the usual one-day waiting period for the second and final vote on a bill.

“The reality is, a lot of these businesses have been out of business,” said Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton. “They’ve had to shut down, because they can’t survive. So once they open, the lawsuits could come flying. And this ensures protection from frivolous lawsuits.”

SB65 says businesses, health-care professionals and manufacturers of products made to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic can’t be held liable for virus-related damages unless they engage in “gross negligence” or intentional acts – a standard higher than usual for most civil-damage lawsuits.

It also says if a business can show it took “reasonable measures” to follow public-health guidelines, it can’t be sued for any Covid-19-related damages.

Gianforte has thrown his support behind SB65, saying it will encourage businesses to adopt public-health guidelines, such as requiring face-masks on their premises, to shield themselves from liability.

The new Republican governor said this approach is preferred to top-down government mandates, and that he’d likely lift the current statewide mandate for wearing face-masks after the bill passes.

However, the bill specifically says even if public-health guidelines require face-masks or vaccines, that not enforcing those guidelines can’t be the basis for a “cause of action” against a business.

Twenty-nine Republican senators and eight Democrats voted for the measure on its final vote.

Sen. Tom Jacobson of Great Falls, one of the Democrats supporting SB65, said local health departments and police haven’t been strictly enforcing some of the guidelines meant to slow the spread of Covid-19, so business-owners shouldn’t be expected to.

Yet Sen. Christopher Pope, D-Bozeman, who opposed the bill, said it creates protections for businesses at the expense of injured workers. No Covid-19 lawsuit alleging damages currently exist in the state, he said, and the bill “may be a solution in search of a problem.”

Bill sponsor Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls said SB65 is about “getting our economy open again,” by giving businesses, churches, nonprofits and others a clear roadmap on what they must do to avoid liability related to Covid-19.

Two Republican senators opposed the bill, including Sen. Theresa Manzella of Hamilton, who said it doesn’t go far enough in protecting businesses from suits alleging Covid-19-related damages.