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Brandes Prepares Bill To Protect Businesses From COVID-19 Related Lawsuits

Steve Cannon
Credit Steve Cannon / AP

As Florida officials push forward with plans to reopen businesses and organizations forced to close because of the coronavirus, one lawmaker says some groups won’t open their doors if they aren’t protected. St. Petersburg Republican Senator Jeff Brandes is working on legislation that would prevent COVID-19 contraction-related lawsuits if organizations are following guidelines.

AJ De Moya is Vice President of a highway and bridge construction company. He’s worried about possibly being sued over something he can’t control.

“I can’t remember ever getting sued over someone catching the flu or some other virus or disease, and I think we’ve got to protect ourselves from mass litigation," de Moya said.

De Moya says his company isn’t the only one that could see litigation mount up.

“I think this is one of the critical issues facing businesses and it effects all of us whether we’re in the tourism industry, general businesses or construction," de Moya said. 

Restaurant and Lodging Association Chairman Sheldon Suga, says his organization needs to get the Florida Legislature to provide an exemption.

“We have to get the legislators to consider limiting lawsuits surrounding this COVID-19," Suga said. "And limiting it maybe to only where there is intentional misconduct.”

St. Petersburg Republican Sen. Brandes (R-St.Petersburg) is that legislator. He’s working on giving business immunity against what he calls frivolous lawsuits.

“The bill creates a safe harbor for businesses that are following the statewide guidelines for dealing with COVID at their respective business.” – m1

Brandes worries if the protection isn’t put in place, businesses won’t take the risk of opening their doors.

“Businesses simply will not reopen without some liability protection and the essential businesses that we’ve demanded stay open for example your grocery stores and your nursing homes and your [assisted living facilities] are concerned about maintaining operations if they're exposing themselves to unknown liabilities.”

Brandes says the liability protection helps both the business and those who are in need of a job. He adds liability protections can also help customers by holding business to a standard of quality.

“I think this will actually drive higher compliance with the law and with the recommended guidelines than probably anything else we could do. Simply publishing the guidelines you’re going to have some businesses that aren’t going to follow them, but if you tie a safe harbor to them this will actually I believe increase public health.”

Florida’s legislature isn’t scheduled to meet until March 2021. Unless there is a special session, that’s the earliest the bill could be heard. Brandes seems to believe calling lawmakers back to Tallahassee early may not be necessary.

“I think there’s a small likelihood of a special session right now, but I think as we discover new issues upon reopening. I think the liability one being the number one issue right now for small businesses. I think that the calls may grow louder for a special session and one may be necessary if the Governor doesn’t have the authority to do this on his own.”

Both Senate President Bill Galvano and House Speaker Jose Oliva says there are no immediate plans for a special session. However, they note it may be needed after June 30, the start of a new fiscal year. House Democrats in a letter Thursday, called for a special session on unemployment, Medicaid expansion and elections.

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Blaise Gainey is a Multimedia Reporter for WFSU News. Blaise hails from Windermere, Florida. He graduated from The School of Journalism at the Florida A&M University. He formerly worked for The Florida Channel, WTXL-TV, and before graduating interned with WFSU News. He is excited to return to the newsroom. In his spare time he enjoys watching sports, Netflix, outdoor activities and anything involving his daughter.