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Montana liability bill intended to limit virus litigation

| January 12, 2021 7:00 AM

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A Montana Senate committee is considering a bill that would provide liability protection for businesses and health care providers against lawsuits related to the pandemic.

The Senate Business, Labor and Economic Affairs Committee held a hearing Friday on the bill, which Gov. Greg Gianforte has identified as a requirement in order to lift a statewide mask mandate put in place last summer by his Democratic predecessor Steve Bullock.

If the bill is voted into law, Montana would join several other states that have created COVID-19 liability protections since the onset of the pandemic. The bill would protect businesses and health care providers from COVID-19 related lawsuits as long as they follow federal, state and local public health guidance.

Proponents of the bill say it is necessary for businesses to operate during the pandemic without fear of what they say could be crippling lawsuits.

"To me, this is akin to the vaccine. It provides a good dose of preventative medicine so that business owners can get back to their job of rebuilding their businesses and hiring new employees," said Brad Griffin, a lobbyist representing numerous business organizations, including the Montana Retail Association and the Montana Restaurant Association.

The Montana Trial Lawyers Association opposes the bill, claiming it seeks to solve a problem that doesn't exist.

"This bill is unnecessary. There has not been an explosion of COVID related litigation," said the organization's executive director Al Smith. "Our current law already provides protections for businesses and medical providers, which is why there hasn't been an explosion of cases."

Smith said the new bill could protect businesses and care providers even if they act irresponsibly in exposing workers and customers to COVID-19, and that the bill's passage does not mean the statewide mask mandate can be safely rescinded.

The bill's sponsor, Republican Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, said in response that the Legislature should "anticipate problems" rather than waiting for them to happen.

"I don't think we necessarily have to wait until we've had multiple lawsuits and we've had a couple people go out of business before we decide we want to take appropriate measures to ensure people are protected from unnecessary litigation," Fitzpatrick said.

Leadership in the Republican-controlled Legislature has indicated they see the bill as a priority for reopening the state's economy. The committee is set to vote on the bill this week.