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Gov. Mike Parson on Thursday expanded the call for the special legislative session underway to include COVID-19 liability protection for health care, manufacturers, and other businesses and organizations.

The Legislature is currently in a special legislative session to pass a supplemental budget with $1.2 billion in spending almost entirely related to pandemic response. The House passed the appropriations bill with the spending authority Tuesday, sending the bill on to the Senate.

Parson said hospitals, health care providers, manufacturers, businesses, schools, churches and other organizations have all played critical roles in the state's response since he declared an ongoing state of emergency in March because of the pandemic.

"None of these groups should be penalized for their efforts to respond to a declared state of emergency," he said. "They must be able to continue operating and serving the public without risk of unnecessary and senseless claims."

According to his expanded call for special session, Parson is seeking a new law that would give liability protection to health care providers as it relates to their response to a declared state of emergency; product liability protection "for any person who designs, manufactures, labels, sells, distributes or donates products" in response to a declared state of emergency; and premises liability protection for exposure claims related to a declared state of emergency.

The agenda item of liability protection for health care providers refers to a state civil defense law. That emergency management law already grants health care providers deployed by a governor or any state agency during a declared emergency to not have to face civil damages or administrative sanctions "for any failure, in the delivery of health care necessitated by the emergency during deployment, to exercise the skill and learning of an ordinarily careful health care provider in similar circumstances."

The law, as it stands, specifically states health care providers in such situations, however, "shall be liable for damages due to willful and wanton acts or omissions in rendering such care."

The other state liability laws on the books cited in Parson's proclamation refer to tort laws.

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Those laws for products liability currently hold a defendant is liable for damages if a product was used in a reasonably anticipated manner, was defective as sold and caused injury; was unreasonably dangerous when used in a reasonably anticipated way by someone who didn't understand how it works, was not given a warning and was injured; or both.

Premises liability refers to whether businesses — including manufacturers, restaurants, entertainment venues, property managers and nonprofits — are responsible for dangers on their property.

As currently written, those dangers can include sickness and disease, and cover ensuing medical expenses, wage loss and loss of services.

The move to include liability protections in special session has been broadcast for some time, and tort reform generally has been a standing objective for some state lawmakers for a long time.

House Majority Floor Leader Rob Vescovo, R-Arnold, wrote to Parson before the start of session last week that "Right now, there are numerous small businesses afraid to open because of the threat of litigation tied to COVID-19. Additionally, many of our hospitals and health care professionals are asking us to help them to better be able to do their jobs by passing commonsense COVID-19 liability protections."

When he called last month for the current special session, Parson said, "I think the legal liability issue should be front and center in this state, and if it's not done in special session, it definitely should be a priority in (regular) session," hopefully in the first 30 or 60 days.

On Thursday, he expected the COVID-19 liability work to be completed before the end of the first week after Thanksgiving, if not before Thanksgiving.

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Parson's call got mixed reactions.

Brad Jones, the state director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, said in a statement, "Missouri small-business owners are pleased to see the governor include liability protection in his latest special session. On top of all the other struggles the small-business community has had to endure over the past six months, they shouldn't have to worry about being wrongfully sued."

Brett Emison, the immediate past president of the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys, said in a statement, "Our lawmakers should (be) enacting policies to protect the public against spreading the virus; not protecting irresponsible businesses from accountability when they fail to follow recommended guidelines."

Emison added, "For our economy to fully reopen and for jobs to return, the public must be safe to engage with businesses. If businesses and employers are no longer responsible when they fail to follow recommended health and safety guidelines, how can employees and customers feel safe?"

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