Republican Lawmakers Request Liability Protections for Businesses

As small businesses reopen, legislators ask for protections against coronavirus lawsuits

By Maggie Dresser

In an effort to support already struggling businesses amid the coronavirus pandemic, local legislators are calling on Gov. Steve Bullock to invoke liability protections for small businesses and health-care providers.

Republicans Mark Noland of House District 10 and Steve Fitzpatrick of Senate District 10, who represent Bigfork and Great Falls, wrote a May 20 letter asking the governor for “narrowly-crafted, clearly-written liability protections” to protect businesses from potential COVID-19 related lawsuits.

Noland worries if a person contracts the coronavirus while inside an open business, even if masks and precautions are being used, the business owner will become liable for a lawsuit.

“That would hamstring a business,” Noland said. “Instead of hamstringing, we need (assurance).”

The legislators are concerned some individuals may take advantage of potential coronavirus lawsuits for personal gain.

“Those that wish to use the courts to profit off the crisis at the expense of Montana’s small businesses are the only winners in an environment in which frivolous and meritless lawsuits become the norm,” the letter stated. “Through establishing clear guideposts for how employers can create a safe workplace, companies and employees will be protected, employees who are endangered will still have recourse and all parties will be spared soaring legal fees.”

While medical facilities are probably at most risk of a lawsuit, with the highest likelihood of the presence of coronavirus, the letter asks for liability protections to be extended to all businesses.

Noland said last week he hadn’t yet heard a response from Bullock, but he is hopeful a directive will be issued.

Although details of the “formal strategy” are yet to be crafted, Noland and Fitzpatrick are not asking for blanket liability protections, but for clearer and more detailed protections to protect small businesses.

Liability protection bills have already been signed into law in North Carolina, Oklahoma, Utah and Wyoming as of June 8. However, Noland is requesting a directive for Montana since the state is not currently in a legislative session.

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