Tennessee Senate approves bill protecting businesses from COVID-19 lawsuits

Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, left, during 2019 Senate debate. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

NASHVILLE - The state Senate on Thursday passed legislation to make it more difficult for Tennesseans to sue businesses, hospitals, schools, universities and nonprofit groups over COVID-19 if the entities are following public guidelines related to the disease.

The "Tennessee Recovery and Safe Harbor Act," which originated with a 30-member group of trade groups and other entities led by the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry, passed the Senate 26-0 and proceeds to the House.

The measure toughens standards to bring lawsuits and includes retroactive provisions that some are already calling constitutionally suspect.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Mike Bell, R-Riceville, said the measure is aimed at restoring confidence to businesses and others already open as well as others trying to reopen and "struggling mightily to salvage everything and move toward recovery in this historic shutdown."

Bell said employers "taking reasonable workplace precautions should not be subject to legal exposure," and the legislation is "intended to provide protections against inconsistent rules" that "could lead to soaring lawsuits."

"This isn't just for the hospitals, the health care providers or big manufacturers," the sponsor told colleagues. "This is for your school on the corner of the neighborhood back where you live. This is for your small pest control operator in the home town where you're at. This will bring relief to every business, health care provider and education system in the state."

The legislation was brought when lawmakers came back to restart their session. Some businesses, including a Gallatin nursing home where 23 residents died from the coronavirus, are already being sued.

Bell said he worked with leaders of the Tennessee Trial Lawyers Association in order to alleviate some of their concerns and incorporated a number of their recommendations.

While employers would enjoy some protections, they would not shield "gross negligence or willful misconduct," Bell said.

Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, an attorney, thanked Bell for working with "lots of different groups, perhaps all the groups, and that's no easy task, and the legislation is greatly improved because of it." He said he still has concerns about businesses being protected in lawsuits with tenuous links to coronavirus.

Bell said the bill provides protections on events "proximate or specifically" to the coronavirus.

"We don't want it going anywhere other than that," he said.

Businesses and other entities, Bell said, would have to "follow some type of official guidance" such as Gov. Bill Lee's "Tennessee Pledge," a voluntary effort for employers to follow guidance such as maintaining social distancing and wearing masks.

Another problem cited by Yarbro and others is Article I, Section 20, in the Tennessee Constitution. The one-sentence section states "that no retrospective law, or law impairing the obligations of contracts, shall be made."

Yarbro questioned how the state Supreme Court might view portions of the bill that do just that.

Bell cited the "uniqueness" of the situation and events "that are no fault of anyone's," along with a 2010 state Supreme Court decision on a related retroactive application issue "does at least allow us to open the door and send it to the courts. I'm confident the court will reach the right ruling."

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.