With the Maryland General Assembly session coming to an end, a top priority for the state’s business community — legislation to protect businesses from lawsuits claiming that a customer had caught the virus at those businesses — has failed to move past initial hearings in either chamber.
Business leaders and advocates had fiercely pushed for the legislation, sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Christopher West, R-Baltimore County, and in the House by Del. Dalya Attar, D-Baltimore. They were worried that businesses open during the pandemic could be hit with an influx of lawsuits mirroring so-called “frivolous” Americans with Disabilities Act suits, which reportedly seek out businesses that are not complying with ADA standards in order to sue them and make money in a settlement.
The bill’s proponents worried that settlements from these cases, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars, would be especially harmful to small businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic, as they lost massive portions of their revenues to shutdowns.
“They might be able to survive one of these settlements, but imagine eight of them,” West said.
That fear appears not to have come to pass; proponents of the bill say they are aware of only a handful of lawsuits relating to COVID-19 transmission within a store or other business.
Out of just under 10,000 COVID-19-related complaints that have been filed in the U.S. since the beginning of 2020, just 67 have been personal injury or wrongful death complaints filed by consumers, none of which were in Maryland, according to data collected by Richmond law firm Hunton Andrews Kurth.
Now, with more and more Marylanders becoming vaccinated each day, it seems increasingly unlikely that such a wave of lawsuits would start now.
“We’re a year into this, and one would think if we’re going to see a blizzard of lawsuits, we would’ve seen a sign of it,” West said.
In his view, the legislation was not able to move forward due to staunch opposition from trial lawyers, who were concerned that the bill would remove people’s ability to file a lawsuit against a business. Not so, the bill’s advocates argued; the bill simply raised the burden of proof so that if a lawsuit were filed, the plaintiff would have to demonstrate that the business was failing to follow local, state or federal COVID-19 guidance when the customer contracted the disease.
In addition, pressing legislation relating to policing and juvenile justice took priority this session in the Senate Judiciary Proceedings Committee, where the liability immunity bill was heard, preventing the bill from moving forward.
Though many within the business community are heartened that their fears of frivolous lawsuits haven’t come to pass, they are still disappointed that what they perceived as a straightforward measure to give small and family-owned businesses peace of mind during the pandemic failed to move.
“When it came to liability, I understood that it was certainly going to be an uphill climb. However, I was buoyed by the fact that a lot of other states … had already passed some sort of liability protections for businesses, whether through an executive order or legislation,” said Mike O’Halloran, state director for the National Federation of Independent Business. “Unfortunately, (the bill) fell victim to the fact that we only have a 90-day legislative session.”
Currently, the business community is not planning to address the issue of liability protections outside the legislative forum. Instead, like West, O’Halloran said the small business community is hopeful that, as vaccines are rolled out to the general public in coming weeks, the pandemic will ease up without a rise in COVID-19-related lawsuits against businesses.
“Obviously, if the issue starts cropping back up, we’ll assess it at that time,” he said.