By Todd DeFeo
The Center Square

Members of the state Senate Judiciary Committee are weighing a bill that would grant immunity to businesses, schools and health care providers from COVID-19-related lawsuits.

“House Bill 606 ensures that Ohio businesses taking reasonable precautions against the spread of COVID-19 can begin to reopen without fearing virus-related lawsuits and liability,” Andrew Geisler, a legal fellow at The Buckeye Institute, said in prepared testimony.

“Many businesses may delay reopening or spend significant resources to take reasonable precautions only to be sued despite their best efforts,” Geisler added. “Ohio should keep that from happening by adopting a ‘safe harbor’ rule that shields businesses and individuals adhering to recommended health and safety guidelines.”

The state House overwhelmingly approved HB 606, known as the “Good Samaritan Expansion Bill,” in late May. In early June, the state Senate passed a similar bill, Senate Bill 308.

Tom Balzer, president and CEO of the Ohio Trucking Association (OTA), said granting liability protection to businesses “is critical, not only to protect those businesses that have remained open during the crisis ... but also to those businesses looking to reopen and rebuild after being closed.”

Balzer raised concerns about an amendment to extend workers’ compensation coverage to employees infected with COVID-19.

“This amendment changes state policy so that COVID-19 infections in certain employees are presumed to be work-related and covered under workers’ compensation,” Balzer said in prepared testimony. “Such a significant policy change could be devastating to businesses, who would be forced to prove that the infection was not work-related. This provision seems to go against the legislature’s efforts to provide relief for businesses working to recover from the pandemic.”

The change in workers’ compensation eligibility was also of concern to the Ohio Grocers Association, which said that it could lead to higher premiums.

“The presumptive eligibility changes the balance of that process and negates any reasonable possibility an employer may show that an illness is not work-related,” Kristin Mullins, president and CEO of the Ohio Grocers Association, said in prepared testimony. “This will undoubtedly increase the likelihood that our [members’] workers’ compensation experiences will be negatively impacted in the form of higher premiums and rates.”

Some witnesses urged lawmakers to remove intermediate and long-term care facilities as exempted facilities.

“Nursing homes are responsible for the most vulnerable among us,” Rachel A. Kabb-Effron, an elder law attorney from Beachwood, said in prepared testimony. “Good nursing homes provide quality care that adds to the dignity of our family members and my clients. Bad nursing homes are a nightmare that allow our vulnerable elderly to die and suffer misery.

“This is true with COVID-19,” Kabb-Effron added. “Most nursing homes seem to have avoided COVID-19 running through their facilities. However, many facilities are negligent and this has led to a high number of cases and deaths.”