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Business groups want protection from coronavirus lawsuits for SC employers

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Dozens of business groups are calling on federal legislators to protect employers from legal liability if workers develop COVID-19 after returning to the workplace.

Led by the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce, a coalition of organizations representing manufacturers, truckers, retailers and others say efforts to restart the state's economy are threatened by the risk of employers "becoming the targets of coronavirus-related lawsuits," according to an open letter to the state's senators and representatives.

"As representatives of thousands of employers and professionals in South Carolina, we ask you to support legislation to ensure that such litigation does not derail our state’s recovery," the letter states, adding "employers and professionals doing their best to control the spread of this disease with the limited guidance available deserve legal protection."

The groups are asking for a law that would shield employers from litigation if they follow federal and state guidelines for ensuring a safe workplace. The suggested legislation would not protect so-called "bad actors" that operate "in reckless or intentional disregard of available guidance on reducing the spread of coronavirus," according to the letter.

"Businesses want to keep their employees and customers safe; those businesses doing the right thing and following guidelines need protection from being sued," said Ted Pitts, president and CEO of the South Carolina Chamber. "We will not get the economy fully reopened and back on track without reasonable protections."

Rep. Joe Cunningham, a Democrat from Charleston, said he would support such a measure.

"Congress and state legislatures can and should take steps to remove reasonable liabilities from companies, so long as these businesses take all the steps necessary to keep infected employees and customers away, and keep their workplace as safe as possible," said Cunningham, who represents the state's 1st District in Congress.

"But we should not incentivize reckless behavior or give a free pass to employers who take risks with the health and safety of their employees or the public," Cunningham said. "An incremental reopening approach with clear benchmarks set by public health officials is the best way to ensure that businesses are taking the proper steps to keep their employees and customers safe, and consumers have the confidence they need to fully participate in the economy."

The Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC, will hold a hearing Tuesday to discuss legal liability issues related to COVID-19. A spokesman for Graham said the South Carolina lawmaker won't have any comment until after that hearing.

Sen. Tim Scott, also a Republican, did not immediately respond to a request for comments.

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While employers have a legal duty to provide a safe workplace, and most will be following state and federal guidelines to protect against COVID-19 — such as extra cleaning procedures, social distancing and providing face masks for workers — labor experts say the coronavirus likely doesn’t present any more potential for liability than other illnesses, such as the flu.

The state's employers are already largely protected by workers’ compensation laws, which force nearly all workplace injury and sickness claims to be tried by a commission rather than in civil court, according to Michael Carrouth, an employment lawyer with Fisher & Phillips in Columbia.

Allan Holmes, an employment lawyer with Gibbs & Holmes in Charleston, said "it is a mistake to be unguardedly optimistic about the legal consequences" of employees returning to work.

"We are counseling the employers we represent to exercise considerable caution with reopening and recall, and only do so after extensive planning and implementation of appropriate guidelines and processes," Holmes said.

While he agrees employees who claim they got COVID-19 in the workplace will face "evidentiary difficulties," Holmes said such claims "will have a higher likelihood of success where the employer ignores appropriate safety guidelines, and increases the likelihood that the illness is work related."

Sara Hazzard, CEO of the South Carolina Manufacturers Association, has been touring the lobbying group's member plants, including Boeing's 787 Dreamliner campus in North Charleston on Thursday, and said they are taking appropriate steps to keep employees safe. In addition to signage reminding workers to wash their hands and maintain a safe distance, barriers are being placed in front of computer screens and keyboards to keep the virus from contaminating frequently touched surfaces.

Coronavirus pandemic Northwoods Mall (copy)

People were waiting in the parking lot when Northwoods Mall reopened last Friday after being closed for weeks because of the coronavirus outbreak. Retailers among the employers seeking protection from lawsuits related to the COVID-19 outbreak. Brad Nettles/Staff

The number of chairs in meeting rooms has been reduced and many manufacturers have implemented one-way aisles for walking around the factory floor, she said. The association is among the groups pushing for legislation to protect employers.

"The companies that I've been hearing from, they are laser-focused on protecting their workers," Hazzard said. "And from what I've observed in the plants I've visited, that is exactly what is taking place. They're doing the absolute best they can do and they're taking extensive precautions to keep their workplace safe."

In addition to the state groups, local chambers of commerce from Charleston, Summerville, Mount Pleasant and Berkeley County are among the organizations that signed the letter.

Jessica Holdman contributed to this report.

Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_

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