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Lawmakers Eying COVID Liability Protections for Businesses

Published: Nov. 24, 2020 at 4:48 PM EST
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCJB) - Businesses will likely be given some limited immunity from COVID lawsuits the next time the Florida Legislature meets this spring.

At least one suit has been filed in Miami against Publix Supermarkets, claiming wrongful death.

Publix Deli employee Gerardo Gutierrez passed away in April after a battle with COVID-19.

His family is now suing the grocery chain, alleging policies the company put in place at the start of the pandemic resulted in his death.

“Their father died because Publix said you can’t wear a mask,” said Michael Levine, an attorney representing the Gutierrez family.

Legal liability protections for companies in the age of COVID-19 is expected to be a top priority for Florida lawmakers.

“It’s something that I think that we should do. That would give businesses confidence to be able to operate,” said Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls.

The Senate President and House Speaker have given few details, but they have said they don’t support total immunity.

“I cannot imagine that we are going to let people off the hook for negligence,” said Senate President Wilton Simpson.

As an example of what kind of protections businesses are looking for, The Florida Chamber of Commerce pointed to a Pinellas County case, where a man sued a restaurant after entering and not seeing anyone wearing masks.

“And while he did not contract COVID he was so concerned about it that he’s suing for emotional damages for $1 million. So there’s kinds of lawsuits like that out there as well,” said Carolyn Johnson, Director of Business, Economic Development and Innovation Policy at the Florida Chamber.

Whether any potential protections passed next year would apply to the Publix case isn’t clear, but the family’s attorney is optimistic their case will be unaffected.

“Certainly an employer like Publix shouldn’t be trying to take away the liberties and freedoms of its workers to decide how they’re going to stay healthy, how they’re going to stay safe,” said Levine.

Legislative leaders say they’ll likely take up liability protection legislation early in the 2021 Legislative session.

The Florida Chamber of Commerce said it hopes any protections will apply retroactively in order to cover the entire pandemic.

And while Florida leaders have limited their discussion on liability protections to essential businesses, other states that have enacted similar legislation have also granted protections to long term care facilities and schools.

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