HELENA — Business lobbies lined up Friday in support of one of Gov. Greg Gianforte’s top priorities – a bill giving businesses protection from liability for Covid-19 infections, provided they follow proper health guidelines.
“Covid-19 has been a minefield of uncertainty for businesses,” said Bridger Mahlum of the Montana Chamber of Commerce. “And we believe that Senate Bill 65 is a needed metal detector for (that) minefield.”
Gianforte said earlier this week that once this liability protection is passed, he will consider lifting a statewide mandate that Montanans wear face-masks in public places.
Businesses will respond by requiring face-masks or other guidelines laid down by health officials, without being required to do it, he predicted.
“By offering protection from civil liability, SB65 ultimately incentivizes our business owners to take personal responsibility and promote actions that advance public health,” he said in a statement.
But the head of the Montana Trial Lawyers Association told the Senate Business and Labor Committee that the measure is not needed, and primarily gives businesses a free pass to act irresponsibly without consequences.
“This bill just provides unnecessary immunity, restricting or denying the rights of injured Montanans – yet it does absolutely nothing to improve the health or safety of our communities,” said Al Smith.
SB65, sponsored by Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, says a person or business can be held liable for damages from Covid-19 infections only if they act with “gross negligence” or “willful misconduct.”
It also says if businesses follow federal, state or local public-health guidelines, such as guidance issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, they cannot be found liable for Covid-19-related damages.
And, the bill also provides additional liability protections for health-care workers and providers of Covid-19 equipment.
Fitzpatrick said Montana currently has “sort of an anything-goes situation” on Covid-19 liability, and that his bill creates a higher standard of negligence that would have to be proved before someone is liable for damages related to the virus.
Nearly two-dozen lobbyists representing business interests, from restaurants to hospitals to farms, testified in favor of the bill.
Smith was one of just three opponents. He said there has not been an “explosion” of litigation related to Covid-19 in Montana and that the language in SB65 creates overly broad immunity for companies that may engage in damaging conduct.
The bill is not needed to encourage businesses to re-open or bring more people back to work, he said.
“I’ve not heard from anybody who says, if this bill is passed, then they will start up their business again, because they haven’t been open before,” Smith said. “We hear a lot about taking responsibility. … If you don’t take those fairly responsible steps, that everybody knows about, failure to do that is negligence.”
The committee took no immediate action on the bill.