House Republicans push virus liability, Democrats object
PHOENIX - Republicans who control the Arizona House hope to rush through a bill this week protecting businesses that reopen from lawsuits by employees or patrons who contract coronavirus.
The push comes as lawmakers return to work following a two month recess triggered by the pandemic and the Senate remains shuttered after voting to adjourn for the year.
House Speaker Rusty Bowers said Monday that the protections are needed if businesses are to reopen and not be subject to “trial lawyers” who may see an “open season" on litigation brought against businesses.
“Our goal and hope is to move business forward, to remove the obstacles that keep them from opening so we can get people back employed and to open up society,” Bowers said after a brief committee hearing where a series of minor bills were teed up for floor debate. "So one of the major challenges to all businesses right now that they have expressed to us is their fear of uncontrolled liability in a very hyper-litigious society.
“In a pandemic I think that would be a well-based fear,” he said.
The House has been on recess since they passed a basic state budget on March 23, and the Senate only returned once — to move to end the session. The House must approve, and GOP leaders don't plan on following suit.
Instead, they have scheduled a week of floor sessions starting Tuesday, with hopes of passing dozens of bills, including the liability bill and one that allows the state to spend $88 million in emergency federal virus money designed to help child centers and subsidize child care for essential workers.
Minority Democrats object, both to the liability bill and to the desire to push a slew of bills that are not related to the virus.
“We’re focused on the real economic and health crisis that people are focusing on right now. We’re prepared to work on that,” Democratic Rep. Athena Salmon said. “We believe that the best way to get there is to shut the regular session down - we are no longer in those times. And reconvene in a special session that is strictly only related to COVID 19.”
On the liability proposal, Salman said the state constitution doesn't allow blanket immunity that prevents people from suiing. She said workers deserve to be protected as much as businesses - if they ignore guidelines designed to protect workers.
“That debate ... it’s dead on arrival,” she said.
Besides Democratic opposition, the liability bill may not get past Republican Gov. Doug Ducey because it strips criminal penalties from emergency orders he has issued closing businesses and enacting a series of other requirements. Most of those orders have been lifted, but it remains unclear if they might be needed in the future.
Bowers said the statewide stay-home order that expired last week and the apparent slowing of cases that resulted shows the public responds without the fear of jail time. Current law allows a 6-month jail term and $5,000 fine for violating Ducey's orders. The liability proposal replaces those with a $100 civil fine.
“You can still be cited, you can go before the judge, you can be held accountable,” Bowers said. “But I’m not going to throw you in jail for six months because you opened your door and tried to make a living for your family.”
The Senate voted overwhelmingly two weeks ago to adjourn for the year, with plans to be called back by Ducey as needed to address pandemic-related issues. Republican Senate President Karen Fann told The Associated Press Saturday that she would see what actually passes the House before deciding on whether to reconvene her chamber.
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