On May 14, less than one-half an hour before the 6:00 p.m. constitutional deadline, the Missouri House passed a COVID liability bill that now heads to Governor Mike Parson for signature. Should he sign the bill (SB 51), it will have an effective date of August 28, 2021. The bill contains protections for healthcare providers, manufacturers, and businesses from tort liability related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
As discussed in our December 21, 2020 blog post, Governor Parson has encouraged lawmakers to author this sort of tort liability legislation since at least November 2020, when he issued a written proclamation on the topic. SB 51 passed the Missouri Senate in February 2021. A key benefit of the bill to defendants is protection from suits stemming from COVID-19 exposures unless a plaintiff can show clear and convincing evidence of recklessness or willful misconduct. If/when the Governor signs this legislation, we will provide additional analysis.
SB 51 comes in the wake of the filing of thousands of COVID-related lawsuits nationally. One potential unintended consequence of this legislation could be a sharp rise in COVID-related suits filed hastily in Missouri courts during the several weeks leading up to the August 28 effective date to circumvent the new law. Should this occur, many of these suits could be meritless and lacking adequate pre-suit investigation.
Assuming SB 51 becomes law, Missouri would not be alone in considering COVID-19 tort liability protections. Other states have provided this through executive order and/or legislative action. In addition, federal liability protections are already available under the 2005 Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness (PREP) Act, which provides immunity to certain defendants, including healthcare provider defendants in certain situations.
The appropriateness of COVID-19 tort liability protections has been hotly debated among the various stakeholders, including the Missouri Chamber of Commerce, the American Medical Association, and various trial lawyer organizations. We will continue to monitor this legislation and its impact in Missouri, both inside and outside its courtrooms.