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story.lead_photo.caption Senate Bill 51 sponsor Sen.Tony Luetkemeyer, at right, addresses the media July 7, 2021, with his thoughts on the legislation that Missouri Gov. Mike Parson is about to sign into law. The bill relates to liability around Covid-19 issues. Photo by Julie Smith / News Tribune.

Priority COVID-19 liability protections were signed into law Wednesday as Missouri lawmakers hope to settle disputes before they occur amid rising COVID-19 cases in the state.

Senate Bill 51 protects individuals, religious organizations, health care providers and other entities from being held liable for exposing others to COVID-19, unless personal injury to the plaintiff occurs and "recklessness or willful misconduct" can be proven.

The new law also notes a written or published policy regarding the spread of COVID-19 is not required of individuals or entities, and any effort to mitigate the spread of the virus after a positive case is identified cannot be considered evidence of liability. Customers and employees are also not protected if the location has a warning notice posted, the law states, as they assume the risk upon entry. For religious organizations, protections are in place even if these notices aren't posted.

Plaintiffs cannot take legal action after two years following the alleged exposure takes place, or one year if the case is against health care providers.

The new law also protects manufacturers and distributors of COVID-19 products, unless "recklessness or willful misconduct" can be proven.

Gov. Mike Parson said many Missouri businesses stepped up to provide assistance during the pandemic, particularly at the beginning when supplies were low.

"This is to protect those businesses," Parson said. "The last thing we need to do is punish anybody for trying to help in the middle of a crisis or pandemic."

State Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, R-Parkville, sponsored the legislation that goes into effect Aug. 28.

Luetkemeyer said he thinks the legislation protects four groups in particular: small businesses, schools, health care workers and religious institutions.

"Of course we've seen a surge in the virus recently, so I actually think this legislation is going to become even more meaningful in the future," Luetkemeyer said. "I hope that's not the case, but if it is, I know that the state is well primed to keep our economy running and people employed."

COVID-19 cases are rising in the state as a little more than 39 percent of Missourians have a complete vaccine. As of Wednesday, the state has had 5,015 confirmed cases since the start of the month, with an average of 716 cases each day.

Luetkemeyer said he heard from many schools that potential liability was driving some of their operational decisions, like whether to keep students in the classroom or at home for virtual learning.

COVID-19 liability protections have been a priority for the governor and the Missouri General Assembly since last year. During his State of the State address, Parson said he wanted COVID-19 liability protections to be one of the first pieces of legislation he signed.

The Legislature finalized the protections during its last day in session.

The law is supported by the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which sent a letter with nearly 800 small business and individual signatures to Parson earlier this year, and called the legislation its top priority this session.

Daniel Mehan, president and chief executive officer of the Missouri Chamber, said the law is important for Missouri's economic recovery from the pandemic.

"We know that trial attorneys nationwide are eager to profit from this pandemic. This threat has been looming over every employer in Missouri," Mehan said in a news release. "With Senate Bill 51 now becoming law, employers can reopen with greater confidence and operate knowing they are safe from the kind of COVID-19 lawsuits that are spreading rapidly across the country."

Not everyone supports of the new law, however.

Brett Emison, a former president of the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys, said the legislation is an infringement on Missourians' right to have claims heard before a jury of peers.

"As of Aug. 28, when this goes into effect, Missourians are going to lose that right, largely, to hold a wrongdoer accountable for subjecting them to this disease," Emison said.

Emison said a right to trial is supposed to remain unchallenged, but legislators have removed that right completely for specified cases and set standards too high in others with SB 51.

After more than a year into the pandemic, Emison said there were only five miscellaneous COVID-19 tort cases in Missouri, none of which alleged negligent exposure in small businesses. Most, he said, were concerned with government shutdowns of businesses and insurance companies failing to pay business interruption coverage to small businesses.

Emison said he hopes the cases this legislation would have an impact on will be in motion before the August effect date and handled under the current laws.

The new law sunsets in four years.

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