Coronavirus & Liability Protections: Vicky Hartzler Bill Would Protect Nonprofits from Lawsuits

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Congresswoman Vicky Hartzler (R., Mo.) speaks at the Values Voter Summit in Washington, DC., October 7, 2011. (Gage Skidmore)

Congresswoman Vicky Hartzler (R., Mo.), who represents Missouri’s fourth congressional district, has introduced a piece of legislation to extend liability protections to nonprofits as states begin to lift their stay-at-home and shutdown orders across the country.

“I think it’s very important for our churches and nonprofit organizations to have assurance as they reopen that they will be able to continue to provide services to the needy with confidence,” Hartzler said of her legislation in an interview with National Review. “There’s a concern that some individuals may try to cherry-pick certain guidelines or other provisions and sue these organizations, and they are at the forefront of providing the services that communities need, whether it be food pantries or handing out clothes or working in homeless shelters, and certainly holding churches services.”

The bill, known as the “Service Assurance Act,” provides that “a nonprofit organization shall not be liable under Federal or State law for any act or omission of the organization with respect to any harm arising from exposure to, or infection by, the virus that causes COVID–19 during a public health emergency with respect to COVID–19.”

Hartzler’s legislation also provides that nonprofits will not be free of liability if the “harm was caused by an act or omission constituting willful or criminal misconduct, gross negligence, reckless misconduct, or a conscious flagrant indifference to the rights or safety of the individual harmed.”

The bill establishes that the liability protection it provides would supersede state laws that are inconsistent with its provisions, unless they provide greater protection from liability. Hartzler says she already has the support of a few cosponsors and is hopeful there will be bipartisan backing for the proposal.

“We want to reopen America,” she said. “We want to do it safely, but we also want to make sure that our businesses, or in this case our churches and our charities, are able to do that soon. Churches are vital to spiritual health of this country and worthy of protecting from lawsuits.”

Hartzler says she has spoken with House minority leader Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.) about having the language of her legislation included in the next round of CARES Act legislation and notes that Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) also has expressed support for liability protections.

McCarthy and McConnell recently released a joint statement on the GOP priorities for the next phase of CARES Act legislation, stating that “healthcare workers, small businesses, and other Americans on the front lines of this fight must receive strong protections from frivolous lawsuits.”

“We cannot let a second pandemic of opportunistic litigation enrich trial lawyers at the expense of Main Street and medical professionals,” they said. “Senate and House Republicans agree these protections will be absolutely essential to future discussions surrounding recovery legislation.”





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