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Congress is debating the next coronavirus relief package, and one sticking point is liability reform. Republicans argue that for the economy to work, businesses should be shielded from COVID-19-related lawsuits. Democrats aren't having it. Planet Money's Greg Rosalsky reports.
GREG ROSALSKY, BYLINE: As summer wanes, Nicole Demas is getting ready for her second year of law school at the University of New Hampshire. She's picking classes, she's buying books, and she's having to decide whether to sign a strange document sent to students by her school.
NICOLE DEMAS: So it says, (reading) by signing, I assume the risks associated with being at the University of New Hampshire, including the risk of exposure to COVID-19.
ROSALSKY: The University of New Hampshire insists it's not a liability waiver. But according to Georgetown Law Professor Heidi Li Feldman, the document uses the standard language used by businesses to shield themselves from legal liability.
HEIDI LI FELDMAN: It's not phrasing that you just come up with out of nowhere.
ROSALSKY: Demas has been petitioning UNH to make sure students aren't forced to sign away their legal rights. So is Josh Marshall, another law student at the school. Marshall is even more concerned about UNH's involvement in a bigger fight over legal liability.
JOSH MARSHALL: They're a member of a larger lobby group that represents a whole bunch of higher ed institutions called the American Council on Education.
ROSALSKY: The American Council on Education has joined big business organizations in lobbying for sweeping liability protections during the pandemic. Earlier this week, Senate Republicans introduced a draft bill that would do just that. Here's Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaking about it on CNBC.
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MITCH MCCONNELL: And so as the majority leader, I can tell you, no bill will pass the Senate that doesn't have the liability protection in it.
ROSALSKY: Right now, a business can be found liable if they don't take reasonable care in preventing sickness, injury or death on their premises. Reasonable care - courts have long insisted businesses and other institutions don't act carelessly and that they take reasonable measures to protect people. Senate Republicans want to lower that standard. Businesses, nonprofits and colleges like UNH would only be found liable if they intentionally or recklessly hurt people. With this provision and others, Feldman says...
FELDMAN: The bill makes it virtually impossible for people to even bring suit, let alone win.
ROSALSKY: Senate Republicans argue these liability protections will help America reopen and recover without a wave of lawsuits. But Feldman says, currently, it's not like if you catch COVID-19 at a local burger spot, you can just sue it and win.
FELDMAN: There are already many, many obstacles to people being able to successfully sue businesses.
ROSALSKY: First, you have to prove you got the virus at the burger spot, and then you have to prove that the burger spot acted carelessly when it came to prevention. If it took reasonable care to prevent the spread of the virus, it is off the hook. She says, it's already a high bar.
FELDMAN: That's why I'm not surprised that I haven't seen too many frivolous lawsuits.
ROSALSKY: Feldman says lawsuits using the existing standard have played a major role in promoting public safety, for example, in pushing American automakers to install things like airbags and safer seatbelts on vehicles. Feldman argues we shouldn't abandon the standard for cases involving COVID-19.
FELDMAN: Because that removes one of the most important incentives that exist to operate safely...
ROSALSKY: As for the University of New Hampshire, when we reached out for comment, they emailed us a statement saying, even if students sign the document they sent, they retain the right to sue if the university fails to exercise reasonable care. That may be true currently, but it might not be true if the new rescue bill includes sweeping liability protections.
Greg Rosalsky, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.