Image: Pennsylvania lawmakers tee up another COVID-19 liability protections bill

Pennsylvania state Rep. Torren Ecker, R-Abbottstown, speaks  April 5, 2021, on the floor of the House of Representatives.

(The Center Square) – Lawmakers in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives teed up a bill on Monday meant to protect businesses from frivolous personal injury COVID-19 lawsuits.

But the bill is unlikely to become law as Gov. Tom Wolf has said he doesn’t support the measure in its current form. 

It’s a familiar position for the Republican-controlled General Assembly. In November, Wolf vetoed a similar proposal that aimed to shield schools, colleges, day cares, nursing homes and manufacturers from civil liability arising from a COVID-19 exposure that he said was too broad and lacked worker protections.

This time, prime sponsor Rep. Torren Ecker, R-Abbottstown, said his House Bill 605 instead mandates all legal challenges related to COVID-19 exposures enter into arbitration, a mediation process typically reserved for “simple” cases with damages totaling $50,000 or less. The damage threshold wouldn't apply to COVID-19 claims, however.

“We are looking for another approach to provide some predictability and really weed out the frivolous cases and focus on the bad actors,” Ecker told the House Judiciary Committee last month. “What’s important here is that ultimately the cases that are legitimate, where folks aren’t following public health guidance, those cases will go to court.” 

Democrats on the committee expressed doubts that arbitration made sense for wrongful death or catastrophic illness claims that a COVID-19 lawsuit might carry.

“The purpose of arbitration is efficiency – that’s why we do it,” said Rep. Mike Zabel, D-Drexel Hill. “The cases tend to be less complex. They tend to pivot around one or two factual issues and they are ripe for compromise, … and arbitration speeds that process along.”

The committee approved the bill mostly on party lines, with no Democrats in favor and one Republican dissenting. The House amended it on the floor Monday to include long-term care providers among the list of protected businesses.

Ecker described it as “a pretty simple vote” that “is the last hurdle to getting back to normal which is what we want to see.”

“This doesn’t protect those that act intentionally,” he said. “This doesn’t help those that engage in criminal misconduct … or did it their own way.”

Rep. Gerald Mullery, D-Nanticoke, criticized the bill as a solution in search of a problem. He mocked a statement from the long-term care industry that compared trial attorneys to comic book villains coming for the pandemic’s heroic front-line workers.

“You know what they didn’t provide us with? An example of a single case or a single settlement from one of their members,” Mullery said. "Not a single one.”

Christen Smith follows Pennsylvania's General Assembly for The Center Square. She is an award-winning reporter with more than a decade of experience covering state and national policy issues for niche publications and local newsrooms alike.

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