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McConnell Calls For Measures To Shield Open Businesses From Lawsuits


Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says that American businesses are facing a pandemic of lawsuits. He says companies need to be protected from lawsuits surrounding COVID-19. It's an issue that could derail efforts to pass another big stimulus bill. NPR's Jim Zarroli reports.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: McConnell says companies all over the country are worried about reopening their doors because they face the threat of lawsuits.


MITCH MCCONNELL: And imagine you're a businessman thinking about reopening and you've heard that the trial lawyers all over the country are sharpening their pencils getting ready to sue you.

ZARROLI: So this week, McConnell set up what he called a red line. He told Fox News there won't be another big stimulus bill unless it protects companies from suits.


MCCONNELL: I've been talking to businesspeople all over the country. There's a good deal of fear about getting back to normal knowing full well the lawsuits that are awaiting unless we address this issue.

ZARROLI: There's no question that businesses are under a lot of pressure right now. Many of them have shut their doors and aren't pulling in revenue. They've laid off many millions of workers. Kenneth Dau-Schmidt, professor of labor and employment law at Indiana University, says state and federal officials are pressing them to reopen.

KENNETH DAU-SCHMIDT: Jeez, President Trump is ordering the meatpacking plants to stay open even though they've got massive outbreaks there and it's clearly very unsafe.

ZARROLI: But if they open too soon, they face potential litigation from employees and consumers. Walmart has already been sued by the family of Wando Evans, a worker at its Evergreen Park, Ill., store who died on March 25. Evans was the second worker at the store to die from the virus, and the suit says the store didn't do enough to protect Evans from the disease. But Dau-Schmidt says it's actually hard for plaintiffs to win cases like this. When a virus is circulating widely, it's difficult to prove where someone got it.

DAU-SCHMIDT: The argument is that that's just a risk that everybody is subject to in the general population, and it's hard to connect it with the job.

ZARROLI: And Dau-Schmidt says when an employee gets sick on the job, it's generally handled through the workers' compensation system, not in the courts. That's not to say plaintiffs won't sue, but the cases are hard to win, and the effort by McConnell could only make it harder. Remington Gregg is general counsel at Public Citizen.

REMINGTON GREGG: What this proposal would do is make it even more difficult for workers to ensure that they were in safe working environments.

ZARROLI: And there are a lot of other potential legal issues. Can a company force an employee to take a test? Can a company be sued by a relative of an employee who gets sick? All these are legal minefields companies have to wade through. The push by McConnell to shield companies from lawsuits is being encouraged by big business groups like the Chamber of Commerce.

Whatever else happens, the effort could delay the passage of another coronavirus bill. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer was asked about McConnell's red line on "PBS NewsHour" this week. He said he was still waiting to see the details.


CHUCK SCHUMER: But I'll tell you if it's going to help big CEOs and not help the workers or hurt the workers, that's not going to happen.

ZARROLI: And Schumer and other Democrats face pressure of their own. Some unions complain that the government hasn't done enough to make workplaces safe, and they say companies shouldn't be protected until their workers are.

Jim Zarroli, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jim Zarroli is an NPR correspondent based in New York. He covers economics and business news.
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