In final days of Missouri’s legislative session, dueling COVID liability bills surface

Tessa Weinberg
Missouri Independent

The House version is more narrowly tailored to premises exposure, while the Senate version offers sweeping protections

It’s a race to the finish to see which version of a dueling set of COVID liability bills will find its way to the governor’s desk before the Missouri Legislature adjourns for the year at 6 p.m. Friday.

On Thursday morning, both a sweeping Senate bill and a more pared down House version moved out of key committees that would allow them to be brought up in either chamber for debate.

House Bill 1358, sponsored by Rep. Ben Baker, R-Neosho, was passed out of the Senate Committee on Governmental Accountability and Fiscal Oversight Thursday. The bill would establish the “True COVID Liability Act,” and would exempt premises’ owners from criminal or civil liability in the case of exposure to a contagious disease, unless the owner “knowingly and purposely” caused someone to be exposed to a clinical disease.

In addition, it would also impose limits on measures used to curb the spread of a contagious disease, like quarantining someone who hasn’t tested positive for the virus in question or limiting activities on a private property.

Meanwhile, a more sweeping COVID liability protection bill that sets a high standard for lawsuits alleging medical malpractice, product liability and premises exposure, in addition to explicit exemptions for religious organizations, was revived and voted out of the House Rules – Legislative Oversight Committee Thursday morning by a vote of 6 to 5.

Senate Bill 51, sponsored by Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, R-Parkville, had been voted down in the committee two weeks ago, and then taken up for reconsideration by a vote of 8 to 3 a week later. While the underlying bill was not voted on that day, it eliminated the three meeting deadline to reconsider a bill that is voted down in committee.

Its passage out of committee Thursday exemplified how no bill is dead until the 6 p.m. Friday deadline marking the end of session.

Protections to shield businesses from most COVID-related lawsuits is a top priority for Gov. Mike Parson, and has been since last year. He had expanded a special session’s scope to include COVID liability protections, but reversed course weeks later and asked lawmakers to take the bill up in January instead.

Opponents of the legislation, like the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys and AARP Missouri, have argued it is a solution in search of a problem, and that the bills would have unintended consequences by setting a high bar for plaintiffs to meet.

But proponents, like the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, applauded Senate Bill 51’s passage, with the group’s president and CEO Daniel Mehan urging the House to “close the door on these opportunistic lawsuits” in a statement Thursday.

But some lawmakers on the House Rules committee who had thrown their support behind Baker’s more narrowly-tailored version, expressed their opposition ahead of Senate Bill 51’s passage Thursday. They argued the Senate’s version goes too far, and would shield negligent nursing homes.

“It is shameful that this is even a thing for us to be protecting negligence. It is our job to protect not only the consumers, our neighbors and constituents of Missouri, and this is an utter and complete failure,” Rep. Raychel Proudie, D-Ferguson said, later adding: “It is just patently ridiculous that we’re going to do this today. I’m not sure who flipped their vote, but shame on you.”

Reps. Wes Rogers, D-Kansas City, and Dottie Bailey, R-Eureka, vowed to oppose it on the floor, with Reps. Ashley Aune, D-Kansas City, Justin Hill, R-Lake St. Louis, and Proudie also voting in opposition.

Luetkemeyer said he hopes to see the House pass his version of COVID liability protections without making changes — which would send the bill Parson

But Baker said if he has the opportunity, he will amend Luetkemeyer’s bill on the House floor to more closely resemble his version.

“If (SB51) comes to the floor, then it’s something that I’m going to try to make a better bill. And we’ll see how that turns out,” Baker said, later adding: “I would definitely rather see mine get across the finish line, and I think it addresses the problems and has less unintended consequences.”

Baker said while he believes his bill has support in both the Senate and from the governor’s office, negotiations are still underway as to whether it will be brought up on the Senate floor.

Luetkemeyer noted he voted in support of Baker’s bill passing out of committee Thursday, but said there are still technical fixes he thinks need to be made on the Senate floor. Luetkemeyer said he “wasn’t really surprised” by Senate Bill 51’s hold-up in the House, as there were “some things that the House wanted to see move before the bill was voted out.”

Rep. Chuck Basye, R-Rocheport, who previously voted Senate Bill 51 down in committee, voted in favor of its passage Thursday. Basye had previously cited his frustrations with the Senate for holding up House priorities like an education savings account program and Second Amendment Preservation Act. Both bills have since moved forward, which he said influenced his vote “a little.”

But he would still like to see Baker’s bill be the vehicle for COVID liability protections. Baker’s bill has also been added as amendment to Senate Bill 27, which awaits to be heard on the House floor.

Rep. Phil Christofanelli, R-St. Peters and chairman of the House Rules – Legislative Oversight committee, said he couldn’t speak to what motivations led to the bill’s passage out of committee, but feels Luetkemeyer’s version is better vetted.

“I think at this late stage, they would either have to pass it clean or not do it at all,” Christofanelli said.

Baker said the last days of session can be unpredictable, with lawmakers leveraging their votes to help other priorities they would like to see cross the finish line.

“There’s just so many moving parts to it, that that definitely figures into the equation,” Baker said. “And so ultimately, we try to hash it out and see what happens and hopefully get the best language across."