Granting Businesses Immunity From Lawsuits Would Endanger Lives, Encourage Disregard for Safety
WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Public Citizen in a telepresser today blasted proposals supported by U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to grant businesses immunity from lawsuits related to the coronavirus. Public Citizen’s experts rebutted misleading claims made by industry proponents of blanket immunity and unveiled a new report showing that many businesses have failed to respond to worker concerns and put in place reasonable protections from the coronavirus.
“Workers and consumers need protections from corporations, not the other way around,” said Brown. “We must hold corporations accountable to keep people safe, especially during this pandemic, when millions of Americans are risking their health and safety to go to work.”
“Businesses claim to care about their employees and customers, but far too many are treating essential workers as expendable,” said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, who spoke on the call. “Businesses willing to let employees risk catching a potentially fatal illness should not be encouraged to keep cutting corners when it comes to safety – and when they do, workers must be free to exercise their right to hold employers accountable.”
The report focuses on 20 companies – including nursing homes, grocery stores, meat packing plants and warehouses – that have failed to take reasonable steps to protect worker health and safety. Their actions show why Congress should not grant businesses immunity from coronavirus-related lawsuits. The possibility of being held accountable in court provides a powerful incentive for companies to act responsibly, and it’s the only way for injured people to seek compensation when companies fail to protect their health and safety. Yet McConnell is proposing to grant businesses retroactive legal immunity from December 2019 through 2025.
“Even as the crisis escalated to more than 25,000 new cases in the U.S. per day, many businesses failed to provide adequate personal protective equipment to essential frontline workers, who are disproportionately women and people of color and largely underpaid. If businesses are given immunity from liability, they will surely take fewer precautions – and some will be disastrously reckless,” the report reads.
Corporations featured in the report include:
- Life Care Centers of America: Federal health inspectors identified safety protocol breakdowns prior to the pandemic at several of the nursing home network’s facilities. At least 250 residents have died, and at least 2,000 cases have been reported;
- Tyson Foods: The company denied workers fully paid sick leave and, according to worker complaints, failed to implement social distancing and provide adequate personal protective equipment. At least 18 employees have died, and more than 4,500 tested positive for COVID-19;
- Walmart: Workers say they lacked necessary protective equipment and cleaning supplies. At least 18 employees have died;
- Amazon: Workers say they were denied paid sick leave and insufficiently protected. At least six warehouse workers have died, and a tracker estimates that at least 900 employees have gotten sick;
- Kroger: Workers at several locations have raised concerns about unsafe working conditions. At least four employees have died;
- Smithfield Foods: One facility in South Dakota became the single largest source of coronavirus cases in mid-April as workers accused the company of ignoring early warning signs and failing to provide sufficient protective equipment. As a result of the outbreak, at least two people died and more than 1,000 got sick; and
- Charter Communications / Spectrum: While its peer companies allowed employees to work from home, Charter continued requiring them to come to work even after a national emergency was declared. At least 230 employees have tested positive for COVID-19.
Utah, which recently passed legislation to immunize businesses from coronavirus-related lawsuits, offers a preview of the potential nationwide consequences of eliminating individuals’ right to hold companies accountable for harm. As the state reopened, two businesses instructed their staff to ignore safety guidelines, resulting in 68 new coronavirus cases connected to those businesses – and no way for people to hold the companies accountable.
“If companies know they cannot be held accountable in court for wrongdoing, it is a virtual certainty that some companies will behave unreasonably and that more people will be harmed,” said Remington A. Gregg, counsel for civil justice and consumer rights at Public Citizen. “Lawmakers need to join Sen. Brown in making clear that business immunity is off the table, because it would be bad for public health, harmful to workers and consumers, a tremendous incursion on states’ rights and a roadblock to a sustainable economy recovery.”
Listen to the telepresser: