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EDITORIAL: Struggling businesses need lawsuit protection

As states lift their coronavirus lockdowns, businesses face a host of obstacles, including reluctant customers, cautious workers and disrupted supply chains. But there’s another gremlin lurking in the shadows that has gone largely unnoticed: the trial lawyers.

“Plaintiffs lawyers are massing to loot medical providers and employers in response to the coronavirus,” read a headline in The Wall Street Journal last month.

The issue is nationwide. In Nevada, Randi Thompson, state director for the National Federation of Independent Businesses, told the Review-Journal that business owners worry they will be held liable if an employee contracts COVID-19 upon returning to work. The federation conducted a poll which found that 68 percent of small business owners are very or moderately concerned about prospective lawsuits related to the virus.

“If Congress wants America to recover with any speed from this epidemic,” the Journal noted, “we can’t have a lawsuit epidemic, too.”

Indeed. If employers are intimidated by the threat of litigation, the destruction will only worsen.

Several governors — even in blue states such as Michigan and Illinois — have signed emergency proclamations to shield health care workers and volunteers from coronavirus lawsuits. Gov. Steve Sisolak should consider a similar move. In the meantime, the Retail Association of Nevada and the Nevada Resort Association are among 200 signatories on a letter to Congress urging the passage of a measure to provide temporary liability protections for businesses gradually trying to get up and running again. “All businesses that are working responsibly and in good faith to ensure the most secure environment as possible, like our members, should not be subject to expensive litigation,” an NRA spokeswoman argued.

Such legislation will meet fierce resistance from the powerful trial lawyers, but even some of their traditional Democratic allies recognize the danger that excessive litigation poses to a recovery. “The United States cannot endure a staggering decline in economic output, let alone unemployment at 20 percent or more,” progressive columnist William A. Galston acknowledged in the Journal, adding, “Employers who do everything possible to prevent the virus from spreading to and within their business shouldn’t be liable for what they cannot control.”

By all means, let bad actors who operate recklessly and without regard for the dangers of this pandemic face the consequences of their actions. But employers that are doing their best to protect workers and customers while trying to preserve their economic viability as they emerge from this unprecedented national calamity shouldn’t have a bull’s-eye on their backs. Republicans must ensure that any new virus relief package include a provision protecting businesses from frivolous or opportunistic coronavirus lawsuits.

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