In a recent column I wrote that civil lawsuits have forced companies to remove thousands of dangerous and, in some cases, lethal products from the marketplace, abandon hazardous practices and make everything from automobiles to cribs safer.
As a result, trial lawyers have saved millions of lives and prevented tens of millions of serious injuries.
Unfortunately, a majority of the members of the Ohio General Assembly must not read Mahoning Matters because they just passed House Bill 606 which gives health care entities and other businesses that expose employees, customers, and others to COVID-19 near total immunity from being sued.
Passage of the bill, which was drafted at the behest of and pushed by the corporate interests that have controlled the Ohio House and Senate for years, slams the courthouse door in the faces of those who have already been infected due to negligence.
In addition, this ill-considered legislation puts all Ohioans at risk because it eliminates one of the primary factors that motivate businesses to act responsibly: fear of paying damage awards to the people they maim or kill.
It’s important to note that HB 606 wasn’t introduced because the plaintiff's bar had launched an all-out legal assault on nursing homes, health care providers and other businesses. The bill was dropped in the hopper on April 10, just a few weeks after the pandemic seized Ohio and long before trial lawyers had even thought about filing suit.
That makes the rationale proponents used in arguing for the legislation — the need to protect companies from greedy, ambulance-chasing trial lawyers — a total ruse.
Think of it this way: If all corporations had this type of blanket immunity, Ford would still be selling exploding Pintos, the pipes in our houses would be insulated with asbestos, women would be using Dalkon Shields and babies would be dying in Simplicity cribs. Fortunately, none of those things are happening because trial lawyers spent years and lots of money litigating cases against negligent corporations.
As my firm learned when we explored suing insurance companies that were routinely denying business interruption insurance claims submitted by policyholders whose operations were impacted by COVID-19, pursuing pandemic-related claims will be extremely difficult. But that doesn’t mean people who were needlessly exposed to the virus and their lawyers should be prevented from trying.
Along with being unfair to those who were infected due to negligence, HB 606 will hurt companies that have been doing the right thing. As a business owner, I know that observing the protocols that prevent the spread of the virus is an expensive endeavor. The grant of near-blanket immunity gives those who choose to put profits above the health of their employees and customers a real competitive advantage over those who do the right thing.
That’s not merely unjust, it’s dangerous because it provides an incentive for owners and managers to bend or break the rules. History teaches us that when a cost benefit analysis rather than the civil justice system drives corporate decision-making people get hurt and killed.
By ignoring that history HB 606 puts all Ohioans in jeopardy.
— Attorney David Betras, a senior partner at Betras, Kopp & Harshman LLC., directs the firm’s non-litigation activities and practices criminal defense law in both the state and federal courts. He has practiced law for 35 years. Have a legal question you'd like answered here? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.