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This bill protects businesses from COVID-19 exposure lawsuits. How many has Idaho faced?

UPDATED: Wed., Jan. 19, 2022

David Hall, co-owner at Rokkos Teriyaki and BBQ, speaks about the effects on business due to coronavirus, Friday, Sept. 10, 2021, in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. Northern Idaho has a long and deep streak of antigovernment activism that is confounding attempts to battle a COVID-19 outbreak.(AP Photo/Young Kwak)  (Young Kwak)
David Hall, co-owner at Rokkos Teriyaki and BBQ, speaks about the effects on business due to coronavirus, Friday, Sept. 10, 2021, in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. Northern Idaho has a long and deep streak of antigovernment activism that is confounding attempts to battle a COVID-19 outbreak.(AP Photo/Young Kwak) (Young Kwak)
By Ryan Suppe Idaho Statesman

A new bill would extend businesses’ immunity from civil claims that seek damages for a coronavirus exposure. Meanwhile, there have been no claims in Idaho to seek damages for a coronavirus injury since the pandemic began.

House Bill 444, sponsored by Rep. Julianne Young, R- Blackfoot, would extend an act that protects businesses, schools and government agencies from liability for exposing someone, whether an employee or patron, to the coronavirus. The bill would extend the law again for another year, until July 1, 2023.

Young told a House panel Monday that the initial 2020 bill barred “frivolous” lawsuits related to COVID-19, so that businesses and schools could operate amid the “uncertainty” of the pandemic.

“It’s not a changing policy,” Young told the House Judiciary and Rules Committee, which unanimously voted to introduce her new bill Monday. “It’s just the extension of the liability immunity that has already been extended.”

No claims filed for coronavirus exposure

Early in the coronavirus pandemic, Idaho, along with dozens of other states, led mostly by Republicans, rushed to grant businesses immunity from COVID-19 lawsuits.

Those lawsuits did not materialize in Idaho. Business leaders said that’s thanks to legislation in 30 states that granted immunity, discouraging COVID-19 exposure claims.

The threat of frivolous lawsuits is one of the reasons Idaho Gov. Brad Little called for a special session of the Idaho Legislature in 2020. The Idaho Legislature passed its immunity law during that special session, and Little later signed the bill. Democratic lawmakers, along with a few Republicans, opposed the bill at the time.

Ken McClure, lobbyist for the Idaho Liability Reform Coalition, a group that seeks to streamline Idaho’s civil justice system, helped write immunity legislation in 2020. McClure told the Idaho Statesman by phone that travel industries, such as cruise ships and airlines, attracted COVID-19 exposure lawsuits at the beginning of the pandemic. That led to a wave of state legislation to protect businesses.

McClure said the claims seen in other states could have been brought against Idaho businesses if not for the state’s immunity act.

“Its hard to say what would’ve happened had the initial legislation not passed,” he said. “We probably would’ve seen lawsuits. I don’t know that, but I assume that.”

But in other states, claims were made against employers – even in states with similar immunity laws. That’s according to a database of COVID-19 lawsuits compiled by Virginia law firm Hunton Andrews Kurth. The data goes back to early 2020, months before Idaho’s immunity law took effect.

Nationwide, there have been 80 claims from consumers seeking damages for injury or death from an alleged COVID-19 exposure, according to Hunton Andrews Kurth. Two of those claims were filed in Utah and Georgia, states with similar immunity laws to Idaho’s. And there have been 241 claims from workers related to conditions of employment, including lack of protective equipment, exposure to COVID-19 at work, personal injury and wrongful death. That included claims filed in 16 states that had similar immunity laws.

In Idaho, no legal claims have been filed – either by employees, patrons or consumers – against Idaho individuals, businesses, schools or local governments seeking damages for an exposure to COVID-19, according to the data.

Idaho bill provides greater liability protection

Idaho’s COVID-19 immunity bill is stronger than many other states’, which are modeled after legislation pushed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

ALEC’s bill granted civil liability if one “complied with or made a good faith effort to comply with” pandemic regulations and practices.

McClure proposed that “good faith” language in 2020. A task force, convened to study liability, and the governor also endorsed the language prior to the special session. But a House committee shot it down, in favor of blanket immunity for transmission of the virus.

McClure supported the 2020 bill without the “good faith” clause as a “second choice.” He said the Idaho Liability Reform Coalition supports an extension of the immunity bill this year.

As it stands, the immunity law does not protect willful or reckless misconduct. During the 2020 session, McClure lobbied for the “good faith” provision as an additional standard. But he told lawmakers that even without it, the immunity act still wouldn’t “leave the door open” for intentional bad conduct.

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