Montana Businesses Need Protection from COVID-19 Liability

The threat of litigation to business is real

By Todd O’Hair

Montana, along with the rest of the U.S., has suffered through almost an entire year filled with the devastating COVID-19 pandemic. The impact on our health can be quantified by infection rates, the number of hospitalizations, and COVID-19 related deaths. Quantifying the effects on our economy is much more difficult. While vaccines offer hope to the end of the pandemic, the gravity of the economic fallout is yet to be determined.

On his second day in office, Gov. Greg Gianforte took an important first step in curbing the economic fallout by prioritizing COVID-19 civil liability protections for businesses, healthcare providers, manufacturers, and others. Recognizing that litigation related to COVID-19 could haunt business long after the disease is history, the newly minted governor pushed legislative relief to the top of his “to do” list by asking Montana’s Legislature to pass Senate Bill 65 (SB65) and protecting those who comply with state and local safety guidelines.

Liability protection from COVID-19 emerged as a top issue for the Montana Chamber and the businesses we represent within weeks of the pandemic outbreak in our state. As the pandemic persists, the exposure to business and the risk it presents to Montana’s economic health is unacceptable, especially as businesses look to survive and recover.

The threat of litigation to business is real. Restaurants, car dealerships, health clubs, and retail establishments, to name a few, are genuinely concerned that despite the safety measures they employ, contact tracing could lead to high attorney fees or heavy civil judgments if there are not laws in place to protect them.

Still not convinced? Look no further than the cost of insurance, where we know COVID-19 liability is already starting to be included in some policies.

Over the last six months, the Montana Chamber has been working with business leaders, candidates, and elected officials, including Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick of Great Falls and Rep. Mark Noland of Bigfork, to craft SB65. This bill protects businesses from litigation if a customer claims to have contracted COVID-19 in their business. It protects responsible organizations making appropriate safeguards, following CDC protocols for social distancing, sanitization, and wearing face masks.

SB65 does not give a pass to “bad actors.” This legislation will not protect businesses that refuse to follow health guidelines for protecting customers and employees from possible infection. While we wait for widespread vaccine distribution, businesses need an additional shot of confidence in knowing they cannot be sued for doing their best to survive in these unprecedented times. “Business as usual” will not return until litigation risk is mitigated and business owners know their employees and customers are safe.

Our economy has been bottled up from its full potential as businesses and consumers have taken extraordinary steps to protect themselves and their neighbors. Mobilizing vaccines and providing common-sense protections for responsible businesses can uncork our constrained economy.

The Montana Chamber of Commerce, on behalf of the Montana business community, looks forward to working with Gianforte and legislators of both political parties to re-open Montana’s economy safely and responsibly.

Todd O’Hair, president and CEO
Montana Chamber of Commerce

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