JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — A legislative session that began amid a surge in coronavirus cases ended Friday with Missouri lawmakers passing a legal shield against pandemic-related liability lawsuits as their final action.
The House vote, taken barely five minutes before adjourning, gives Republican Gov. Mike Parson a priority bill that he had been calling on lawmakers to pass for six months. But even if Parson signs it quickly, the legislation won't take effect until Aug. 28.
The legislation would prohibit COVID-19 liability lawsuits against businesses and health care providers unless plaintiffs can prove they were exposed and sickened by the coronavirus and that the entity engaged in “reckless or willful misconduct.”
Religious organizations would be shielded from COVID-19 exposure lawsuits unless “intentional misconduct” can be proven.
Manufacturers who changed their normal business operations to make masks or other COVID-19 products would not be subject to liability lawsuits unless plaintiffs can prove by “clear and convincing evidence” that their “reckless or willful misconduct” caused harm or injury.
The Republican-led Senate passed the bill in February, but it remained stalled in a House committee for months before the chamber suspended a rule to bring it up for a vote Friday. The GOP-led House then passed the bill by a 97-57 vote.
“This actually should have been the first bill we passed at the beginning of the year,” said House Speaker Pro Tem John Wiemann. "But now, here we are at this time, with the opportunity to still get it done."
The bill was a priority for business groups.
“The threat of this litigation has loomed over every employer in Missouri," said Dan Mehan, president and CEO of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry. He added: "With this bill now passed, employers should have greater confidence as they get Missourians back to work."
Some Democratic lawmakers said the bill went too far and could potentially cause more pain to families whose loved ones died of COVID-19.
“We've been through a tough year, and I don’t want to see people further hurt,” said state Rep. Patty Lewis, a nurse from Kansas City. "I think we need accountability, and we should not protect those who are not taking precautions.”