Liability issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic have become a focal point of the economic recovery effort, according to the task force charged with developing recommendations for Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
The Arkansas Economic Recovery Task Force has released its interim report on the COVID-19 pandemic and the state of Arkansas’ economy. In the report, the task force outlined multiple recommendations for Hutchinson. One of the areas that the task force highlighted was the need for liability protections.
During a May 28 press conference, task force chairman Steuart Walton discussed the need for liability protections, calling it a “resounding theme” of the task force’s conversations with state leaders. He said that the lack of liability protections is creating uncertain among business owners and other individuals, which could slow down the economic recovery efforts.
The task force report cites the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, which stated that “uncertainty that they may face litigation related to COVID-19 exposure will provide additional strain to businesses, healthcare facilities, and other organizations as they try to safely and responsibly resume services.”
Walton emphasized that the liability protections are limited to business owners and stakeholders.
“It’s really seen by the Economic Recovery Task Force as a potential drag on the state’s ability to recover economically with a large degree of uncertainty in this area,” Walton said. “It’s not really targeted toward workers as much as it is the overall business environment and the various stakeholders a business has. Clearly a business doesn’t want to do anything that would risk its customers because that would risk its business…”
“There’s just such a level of anxiety among business owners, managers, religious leaders, educational leaders around what kind of liability would I be exposed to if I reopen and somebody did get sick. It’s just been a resounding theme in our meetings, and we’re just trying to encourage people to address it, talk about it. It’s not about picking a partisan side. It’s about trying to find a way for the state’s economy to recovery.”
The task force proposed three measures related to liability concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic. The three recommendations would involve both the executive and legislative branches of the state government
The first recommendation, which concerns the executive branch, is for Hutchinson to issue an executive order that would provide protection for businesses and employers.
Two of the recommendations focus on the legislative branch. In the first recommendation, the task force proposed that new legislation should be introduced during a special session of the Arkansas General Assembly. This legislation would concern immunity protection from COVID-19-related issues. A second set of legislation related to liability protection was also proposed by the task force. This legislation would be introduced during the 2021 legislative session.
According to the report, immunity would not apply “was clear and convincing evidence that damages or injuries were caused through gross negligence, intentional conduct, or bad faith.” However, the report states that operating a business or organization during a pandemic “does not equal gross negligence, intentional conduct, or bad faith.”