COVID lawsuit immunity for businesses should have been a no-brainer

Most of the “immunity” showing up in the news these days has to do with vaccines. But there’s another sort of immunity on the minds of business owners across America, and that’s legal immunity. The family that owns the Big Moose Inn in Millinocket, Maine is keenly aware of this debate. They are currently facing some serious legal jeopardy that may put them out of business permanently. But it’s not the state coming after them this time. The families of several people who died from COVID-19 after attending a wedding reception in August are suing the business for wrongful death and a number of other complaints. And they aren’t alone in this mess. There are already thousands of lawsuits making their way through the courts as people rush to cash in on what is essentially a natural disaster and an act of God. (Associated Press)

Plans for a lawsuit against a Maine venue that hosted what became a “superspreader” wedding reception underscore the liability risks to small businesses amid the coronavirus pandemic and an uphill push by Republicans in Congress to give such outfits legal immunity.

Behemoths like Walmart and Tyson Foods, which have been the target of COVID-19-related lawsuits, can largely absorb any losses. But hundreds of negligence lawsuits have been filed across the country, with mom-and-pops most fearing the prospect of litigation that could put them under.

“They can end up losing even if they win a lawsuit,” said David Clough, of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, because costly litigation can bankrupt small businesses that don’t have deep pockets.

While I’m sure we can all sympathize with families who have lost loved ones to this plague, this mountain of lawsuits shouldn’t hold up under legal scrutiny if we lived in anything resembling a sane world. There are a couple of reasons for this, but common sense is far too often in short supply in our nation’s courts. Also, the explosion of government mandates on freedom of travel during the pandemic has left us in some uncharted waters in terms of liability cases.

The case of the Big Moose Inn lawsuit should provide a good example to go by. The plaintiffs are arguing that the reception had too many people in attendance to safely operate under Maine’s prohibition against gatherings of a certain size. The limit was fifty people at the time, but the owners divided the reception up into two different halls with less than fifty people each so they claim they were in compliance. There were also many people at the reception not wearing masks. There were clearly posted signs telling everyone that masks were required, but they didn’t have a way to enforce that rule when people began taking off their masks inside, particularly when eating or drinking.

If any business is operating in accordance with state guidelines and people wind up becoming infected with a disease that some of the attendees clearly brought into the hall with them, how is the business at fault? And even if they broke the rules and exceeded the maximum capacity, we’re talking about a virus here that was not created by or even transmitted by the owners or their employees. Up to sixty thousand people die from the flu each year in America and the vast majority of them contract the disease out in public, either at work or in some other setting. Yet I don’t see any lawsuits blaming the places they visited for those deaths. We’re talking about a force of nature here. If you want to sue someone over it, try suing the Chinese Communist Party.

Even if we accept that the new rules of engagement covering the novel coronavirus allow for localized “responsibility” for transmission of the virus, every person who showed up for that reception could obviously see the number of people in attendance and the fact that many of them were abandoning their masks. They had the choice to turn around and simply walk away, but they decided to stay. Where is their responsibility in all of this? The only way to prevent this outbreak short of refusing to host the event would be for the owners of the inn to slam the door in the guests’ faces when they arrived or strongarm them out of there once they took off their masks. And if that had happened, they would probably have been sued over that behavior as well.

None of these questions touch on the issue of contact tracing. As the owners point out, there were several other large events held on the same day as the reception and a surge in case numbers around their county was already underway. Even if we assume that the owners of a business are somehow responsible for the transmission of a virus, how are the attorneys for the plaintiffs going to prove that their specific client’s family member contracted the virus at the reception and not at the gas station on the way there or from a family member who came down with it elsewhere?

The final fly in the ointment here comes with the fact that some of the people who wound up dying weren’t even at the reception. They allegedly contracted the virus from someone else who attended. Even under this crackpot legal theory, how is the inn responsible for those deaths? If that charge is allowed to stand, the inn could be held responsible for every death that took place in the county after the date of the event.

None of this makes any sense. Congress needs to enact some sort of blanket immunity for employers and other businesses related to this pandemic. We live in a nation that has long since grown far too litigious and there’s an army of lawyers out there just waiting to sing up clients to go after anyone with sufficiently deep pockets. At this rate, businesses who somehow manage to survive the government shutdowns may wind up being taken out in a series of class-action lawsuits and disappearing anyway.