If a customer eats at a Michigan sandwich shop and tests positive for COVID-19 a few days later, could that customer sue the restaurant and win?
What about students who contract the coronavirus on college campuses, or employees who catch the virus while working at a manufacturing plant? How sick would someone need to be to sue?
Several Michigan lawmakers aim to answer those questions with a series of bills, brought up for debate Tuesday in the House Judiciary Committee. Legislators did not vote on any of the measures, but indications of support from the business community and opposition from legal groups in the state foreshadow battles to come.
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“I don’t think there will be a more important piece of legislation in front of us dealing with businesses in the next couple months,” said Committee Chairman Graham Filler, R-DeWitt.
“I believe the package will help speed up Michigan’s economic recovery. I think it will protect workers from being forced into working in unsafe conditions. I think it will eliminate frivolous lawsuits that could bankrupt universities and businesses.”
Filler and other supporters say the bills provide temporary protections for businesses and employees. But several lawmakers on the committee said the language was too broad, providing too much cover for potential bad actors.
Some of the legal liability issues addressed in the bills (HB 6030, HB 6031 and HB 6101) include:
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One of the bills, HB 6032, also outlines protections for workers who have COVID-19 while defining requirements they must meet before returning to work.
The bill would require certain employees who test positive for the virus to stay home until a certain amount of time has passed since they first experienced symptoms or they receive a negative test result. During this time away, the employer could not punish that worker in any way. Health care workers, first responders, correctional officers and other similar positions are not covered by the bill.
The bill states if the person does not yet have a negative test result, the person must stay away until they’ve gone three days without any symptoms. They must also wait to return until at least seven days from either the first day they experienced symptoms or the day they tested positive for the virus, whichever is later.
Rep. David LaGrand, D-Grand Rapids, questioned whether the length of time an employee needed to stay away was long enough. In general, he and other Democrat representatives questioned whether the legislative package went too far.
“All businesses that operate in our free market system with government controls and with a liability in place face liability if they do things that we deem they should be liable for,” said LaGrand, an attorney and small business owner.
“We’re not talking about getting rid of the possibility of lawsuits. I don’t, myself, operate my business in the morning and worry a lot about frivolous lawsuits. I think that’s … an overblown concern.”
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All of these questions are keeping Michigan business owners up at night, said Wendy Block, vice president of business advocacy for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, when she addressed lawmakers Tuesday.
“Recovering businesses who are working to stabilize our communities and save our economy are deeply concerned about the possibility that despite trying to do everything to get this right, to follow guidelines to a T, that they might be sued,” Block said.
At the same time, employees are struggling with how to pay their mortgages and grocery bills. Risking potentially enormous medical bills thpany a bad case of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, in order to…