HELENA — Business leaders and industry representatives voiced their firm support Friday for a bill to enhance liability protection from lawsuits stemming from COVID-19. The hearing for the legislation came days after Gov. Greg Gianforte indicated he would sign such a measure as a precursor, along with expanded vaccine distribution, for eventually repealing the statewide mask mandate implemented by former Gov. Steve Bullock.

Senate Bill 65, sponsored by Great Falls Republican Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, would protect businesses, nonprofits and health care providers from civil lawsuits alleging liability for COVID-19 exposure if those entities are in “substantial compliance” with public health orders and state or federal statutes. During a tumultuous year of pandemic-related guidance and rules, Fitzpatrick said he intends for the bill to give business owners an increased sense of security.

“We’re trying to provide some fairness to this whole situation, because everything has changed so much,” Fitzpatrick said in a Senate Business, Labor, and Economic Affairs Committee hearing. “[Businesses] are just trying to do the best they can. And even though they’re doing the best they can, they can just get hauled into court with some lawsuit where all of a sudden you’re paying, $50,000, $100,000 dollars out of their own pocket.”

Some lawmakers and opponents raised concerns that the legislation would remove legal remedies for patrons and employees to hold business owners or employers accountable to public health requirements.

“The way I read [the bill] is it will eliminate the rights of Montana workers, patients and consumers who unfortunately got COVID through no fault of their own,” said Sen. Cydnie Boland, D-Great Falls. “And I understand that when the guidelines are put in place and they are not followed by employees, that should be on them … But when the scientific guidelines are not followed by the business or the health care professionals, why in the world would the employee or the patient be held responsible?”

The safe harbor for businesses would only apply if they maintain compliance with local, state or federal public health requirements. The bill also does not protect people or businesses accused of gross negligence or willful misconduct related to COVID-19. It does not apply to government agencies, a category that Fitzpatrick told Montana Free Press would likely be addressed in separate legislation. 

Several supporters of the bill lined up at the state Capitol to provide testimony, many representing industries that have been hard hit by the pandemic, including restaurants, hotels and small businesses. 

“This is an extremely important bill that’s to keep these businesses alive,” said Ronda Wiggers, a lobbyist representing the National Federation of Independent Businesses. “They cannot afford even the $2,500 or $3,000 that it would cost them to go talk to their attorney for a frivolous lawsuit. Yes, most of [the lawsuits], maybe most of them would get dismissed, but that initial attorney fee is more than these businesses have left right now.”

Gianforte praised the bill, and signaled his support, in a statement released on Friday.

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Mara covers Montana’s social welfare and criminal justice systems, including public health matters such as substance use disorders and mental health care. She also tracks policy and social issues that affect LGBTQ+ people. Prior to joining Montana Free Press, Mara worked at Slate and WNYC, where she focused on radio and podcasts. She got her start in audio journalism as an intern at Montana Public Radio. Contact Mara at msilvers@montanafreepress.org, 406-465-3386 ext. 3, and follow her on Twitter.