Wolf vetoes proposal to shield businesses from some pandemic liability

By: - December 1, 2020 1:29 pm

Governor Tom Wolf speaks during a press conference about Restore Pennsylvania and broadband internet access across the Commonwealth.

Capping a busy lame duck session, Gov. Tom Wolf has vetoed a bill protecting businesses, schools, medical professionals and nonprofits from some COVID-19 related lawsuits.

The bill passed the Senate 29-20, and the House 104-98 two weeks ago, with some Republicans opposing it as well as Democrats in the lower chamber.

The proposal makes it easier to dismiss lawsuits brought against employers or companies that may have put workers or customers at risk of COVID-19. 

The bill also included two measures unrelated to the pandemic providing a liability shield to land banks and farms that attract tourists.

In his veto message on Monday, Wolf, a Democrat, said the proposal “invites the potential for carelessness and a disregard for public safety.”

Wolf added that any immunity protections would have to be paired with workplace protections, such as mandating paid sick leave.

Earlier in the pandemic, Wolf had attempted to use his powers under state disaster law to protect doctors and other health practitioners from liability if they worked in hospitals. But it would not apply to doctors working in private practice. 

Wolf once again dipped into his emergency powers this month, signing a similar order on liability to protect businesses from being sued for enforcing mask requirements.

Kevin Levy, an attorney with Philadelphia law firm Saul Ewing, said Wolf took his authority from a state good samaritan law that would normally apply to, say, search and rescue volunteers and is extending it to retail clerks forced to the frontline of the pandemic.

Wolf has “taken a much more passive approach to enforcing these orders, to the detriment in my opinion, of some of these businesses,” Levy said.

Levy was skeptical the mask liability extension would be enough for businesses worried about facing costly lawsuits.

The proposal had been advocated for by a wide swath of groups, from local governments and  medical professionals to YMCAs.

But liability protections also have the backing of powerful associations representing insurers, manufacturers and small businesses.

The veto was the latest chapter in a long running battle between two powerful groups — businesses and trial lawyers — that has played out in Harrisburg as well as Washington D.C. over the pandemic. 

Both groups can account for millions of dollars in political spending between them.

Gene Barr, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, said in a statement that Wolf’s decision was a blow to businesses at the expense of “opportunistic trial lawyers anxious to profit from this crisis.”

In a joint statement, the presidents of the state and Philadelphia trial attorney’s association countered that the bill was “nothing more than a grotesque effort by massive corporations, manufacturers, hospitals, and nursing homes to shield themselves from liability when their negligent actions cause injury or death.”

Wolf has vetoed 19 bills this year, by far the most he’s used the veto pen. His previous record was 10 vetoes in 2015, which was Wolf’s first year in office.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.