It took five months of negotiation, but the Ohio General Assembly has enacted a controversial bill that grants immunity from civil liability for coronavirus injuries, deaths, or losses. Governor DeWine signed House Bill 606 on September 14, stating that it strikes a balance between reopening the economy and keeping Ohioans safe. The bill will be effective in 90 days.
The bill’s statement of findings and declaration of intent illustrate why it faced disagreement within the General Assembly. After stating its findings that business owners are unsure of the tort liability they may face when reopening after COVID-19, that businesses need certainty because recommendations on how to avoid COVID-19 change frequently, that individuals who decide to go out in public places should bear responsibility for taking steps to avoid exposure to COVID-19, that nothing in existing Ohio law established duties on business and premise owners to prevent exposure to airborne germs and viruses, and that the legislature has not delegated authority to Ohio’s Executive Branch to create new legal duties for business and premises owners, the General Assembly made a clear declaration of intent in the bill: “Orders and recommendations from the Executive Branch, from counties and local municipalities, from boards of health and other agencies, and from any federal government agency do not create any new legal duties for purposes of tort liability” and “are presumed to be irrelevant to the issue of the existence of a duty or breach of a duty….and inadmissible at trial to establish proof of a duty or breach of a duty in tort actions.”
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Diane Grendell (R-Chesterland), refers to it as the “Good Samaritan Expansion Bill.” That name relates to one of the two types of immunity in the bill, a temporary qualified immunity for coronavirus-based claims against health care providers. In its original version of H.B. 606, the House of Representatives included only the health care immunity provisions. Of interest to farms and other businesses are the bill’s general immunity provisions, however, added to the final legislation by the Senate.
General immunity from coronavirus claims
The new law will prohibit a person from bringing a civil action that seeks damages for injury, death or loss to a person or property allegedly caused by exposure to or transmission of coronavirus, with one exception. The civil immunity does not apply if the exposure to or transmission of coronavirus resulted from a defendant’s “reckless conduct,” “intentional misconduct,” or “willful or wanton misconduct.” “Reckless conduct” means disregarding a substantial and unjustifiable risk that conduct or circumstances are likely to cause exposure to or transmission of coronavirus and having “heedless indifference” to the consequences.
Government guidelines don’t create legal duties
Consistent with the bill’s stated intent, the new law clarifies that a claimant cannot assert liability based on a failure to follow government guidelines for coronavirus. The law states that any government order, recommendation or guideline for coronavirus does not create a duty of care that can be enforced through a civil cause of action. A person may not admit such orders and guidelines as evidence of a legal right, duty of care or new legal cause of action.
No class actions
Another provision in the new law also prohibits a class action that alleges liability for coronavirus exposure or transmission if the law’s general immunity provisions do not apply.
Time period covered
The general immunity provisions apply only to a specified period of time: from March 9, 2020, when the Governor declared a state of emergency due to COVID-19, until September 30, 2021.
Workers compensation not addressed
An earlier version of the bill passed by the House of Representatives would have classified coronavirus as an “occupational disease” and would have allowed food workers, first responders and corrections officers to receive workers’ compensation benefits for the disease. However, the Senate removed the workers’ compensation provisions from the final bill based on its belief that the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation is already covering 85% of such claims.
What does H.B. 606 mean for agricultural businesses?
The new law provides certainty that agricultural businesses won’t be assailed by lawsuits seeking damages for COVID-19. A person claiming harm from exposure to COVID-19 at an agricultural business will only be successful upon a showing that the business acted recklessly and with intentional disregard or indifference to the possibility of COVID-19. That’s a high evidentiary standard and burden of proof for a claimant.
As is often the case when an immunity bill is enacted, however, there are several reasons why businesses should not let down their guards because of the new law. Note that while the law rejects government guidelines and orders about COVID-19 as a basis for placing legal duties upon businesses, following such guidelines and recommendations can counter an allegation of reckless or indifferent behavior about COVID-19 exposure or transmission. And there can be consequences from COVID-19 other than litigation, such as impacts on customer and employee health and safety, workers’ compensation claims, and negative publicity from an alleged COVID-19 outbreak. Continuing to take reasonable actions to manage COVID-19 and documenting actions taken can enhance the certainty offered by Ohio’s new COVID-19 immunity law.
Read H.B. 606 here.
Written by Ellen Essman and Peggy Hall
This edition of the Ag Law Harvest has a little bit of everything—Ohio and federal legislation responding to COVID issues, new USDA guidance on bioengineered foods, and a judicial review of Bayer’s Roundup settlement. Read on to learn about the legal issues currently affecting agriculture.
Ohio COVID-19 immunity bill stalls. While the Ohio House and Senate agree with the concept of immunity for COVID-19 transmissions, the two chambers don’t yet see eye-to-eye on the parameters for COVID-19 liability protection. H.B. 606, which we reported on here, has passed both the House and Senate, but the Senate added several amendments to the legislation. The House won’t be addressing those amendments soon because it’s in recess, and doesn’t plan to return for business until at least September 15. The primary point of disagreement between the two bills concerns whether there should be a rebuttable presumption for Bureau of Workers’ Compensation coverage that certain employees who contract COVID-19 contracted it while in the workplace. The Senate amendment change by the Senate concerns exemption from immunity for "intentional conduct," changed to "intentional misconduct.” Currently, there is not a plan for the House to consider the Senate’s amendments before September 15.
Lawmakers propose bill to avoid more backlogs at processing plants.
Most people are aware that the COVID-19 pandemic created a huge backlog and supply chain problem in U.S. meatpacking plants. A group of bipartisan representatives in the House recently proposed the
Requiring Assistance to Meat Processors for Upgrading Plants Act, or RAMP-UP Act. The bill would provide grants up to $100,000 to meat and poultry processing plants so the plants could make improvements in order to avoid the kind of problems caused by the pandemic in the future. The plants would have to provide their own matching funds for the improvements. You can find the bill here.
Revisiting the Paycheck Protection Program, again. In a refreshing display of non-partisanship, Congress passed legislation in late June to extend the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). Employers who haven’t taken advantage of PPP now have until August 8, 2020 to apply for PPP funds to cover payroll and certain other expenses. Several senators also introduced the Paycheck Protection Program Small Business Forgiveness Act, a proposal to streamline an automatic approval process for forgiveness of PPP loans under $150,000, but there’s been little action on the bill to date. Meanwhile, the American Farm Bureau Federation is in discussion with the Senate on its proposal for other changes to PPP that would expand access to PPP for agriculture.
More clarification for bioengineered food disclosure. You may recall that the National Bioengineered Food Law was passed by Congress in 2016. The legislation tasked USDA with creating a national mandatory standard for disclosing bioengineered foods. The standard was implemented at the beginning of 2020, but USDA still needed to publish guidance on validating a refining process and selecting an acceptable testing method. On July 8, 2020, that guidance was published. The guidance provides steps for industry to take when validating a food refining process under the rule. A lot of food refining processes remove traces of modified genetic material. So, if a refining process is validated, there is no further need to test for bioengineered material to disclose. The guidance also contains instructions on testing methods. Basically, “any regulated entity that is using a food on the AMS List of Bioengineered Foods and does not want to include a bioengineered food disclosure because the food or ingredient is highly refined and does not include detectable modified genetic material” should follow these testing instructions. Therefore, any entity with highly refined foods that do “not include detectable modified genetic material” should follow the recently published guidance.
Bayer settlement proposal under scrutiny. Last month, Bayer, the owner of Roundup, announced that it would settle around 9,500 lawsuits related to alleged injuries caused by using the product. Not only was the proposal supposed to settle previous lawsuits, but it was also meant to address any future lawsuits stemming from purported injuries caused by Roundup. A judge from the United States District Court for the Northern District of California recently pumped the breaks on this plan, stating that any settlement that would resolve “all future claims” against Roundup must first be approved by the court. A hearing will be held on July 24, where the court will decide whether or not to “grant preliminary approval of the settlement.”
There’s been a lot of action in the Ohio General Assembly over the last few weeks ahead of the body’s summer break. Specifically, the House of Representatives has considered bills involving a student debt forgiveness program for veterinarians, animal abuse, road safety in Amish country, immunity for apiary owners for bee stings, and a bill meant to support county fairs during the COVID pandemic. Finally, both the Ohio House and Senate have passed bills that would limit liability involving the transfer of COVID-19.
Animal-drawn vehicle lighting. House Bill 501, concerning slow-moving, animal drawn vehicles, was introduced in February of 2020 and was first heard in the House Transportation & Public Safety committee on June 2. The purpose of HB 501 is to “clarify the law governing slow-moving vehicles and to revise the lighting and reflective material requirements applicable to animal-drawn vehicles.” The bill would require animal-drawn vehicles, like the buggies typically driven by the Amish, to have the following: (1) at least one white lamp in the front visible from 1,000 feet or more; (2) two red lamps in the rear visible from 1000 or more; (3) one yellow flashing lamp mounted on the top most portion of the rear of the vehicle; (4) a slow moving vehicle (SMV) emblem; and (5) micro-prism reflective tape that is visible from at least 500 feet to the rear when illuminated by low beams on a vehicle. In the committee hearing, HB 501 had mostly positive feedback, and was touted as a solution to crashes involving animal-drawn vehicles in poor visibility.
When the bee stings. HB 496, which would grant apiary owners immunity for bee stings, passed the Ohio House on June 9, 2020. The bill would protect the owner of a registered apiary from liability in the case of a personal injury or property damage from a sting if they do the following: (1) implement and comply with the beekeeping industry best management practices (BMPs) as established by the department of agriculture; (2) keep correct and complete records of their implementation and compliance with BMPs and make the records available in a legal proceeding; (3) comply with local zoning ordinances pertaining to apiaries; (4) operate the apiary in compliance with the Ohio Revised Code. Notably, the bill would not protect apiarists from harming a person intentionally or through gross negligence. The bill now moves on to the Ohio Senate for consideration.
Debt forgiveness for veterinarians. The House also passed HB 67 on June 10, 2020. This bill would create the “veterinarian student debt assistance program,” which would determine which veterinarians would receive student debt assistance, and how much each person would receive. The amount awarded must be between $5,000 and $10,000. Essentially, if the new veterinarian agrees to live in Ohio for a certain amount of time, and to participate in “charitable veterinarian services” like spaying and neutering for a nonprofit organization, humane society, law enforcement agency, or state, local, or federal government, student debt could be forgiven. The details, including how many hours a veterinarian would need to work for charity, the types of charities that qualify, the amount of time a person must live in Ohio, and others would be determined by State Veterinary Medical Licenses Board.
Animal abuse. HB 33 passed the lower chamber on June 11, 2020. This bill would require veterinarians, social service professionals (people who work at the county Job and Family Services, Children’s Services), counselors, social workers, and other similar professions to report violations against “companion animals” (dogs, cats, other animals kept in a residential dwelling), to law enforcement and/or the county humane agent or animal control officer. People in these professions would have to report when they have “knowledge or reasonable cause to suspect” that violations to companion animals are happening, and they know or suspect that a child or older adult (60 years and older) lives in the residence, and they know or suspect that the violation is having an impact on the child or older adult. Violations include animal abandonment, injury, poisoning, cruelty, fighting, dog fighting, or sexual conduct with an animal.
Assistance for county fairs. If you’ve heard about any Ohio legislation recently, it was likely this bill. HB 665 was passed by the House after much debate on June 11, 2020. The 61 page bill makes a lot of changes to the statutory language. Importantly, the bill would make it a misdemeanor for patrons not to follow written warnings and directions on amusement rides. The bill also makes a number of changes to how county agricultural societies operate. First of all, members of a county agricultural society would have to be residents of the county. Members would have to pay a fee to retain membership, and the societies would have to issue a printed membership certificate to members. In counties with an ag society, the county treasurer must transfer $1600 to the society each year as long as the society holds its annual exhibition, reports to the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA), and the director of ODA presents the society with a certificate showing it has followed applicable laws and regulations. The bill also addresses independent agricultural societies, to which similar rules apply. The county board of commissioners would also be required to appropriate at least $100 to the ag society’s junior club. The bill would require ag societies to create a report of its proceedings during the year, file a financial report and send it to the ODA director, and publish an announcement in the county newspaper or the society’s website a statement about the filing of the financial report, and contact information for people who want to obtain a copy of the report. The bill also outlines the circumstances under which an ag society can sell fairgrounds or parts of fairgrounds. Finally, an amendment to the bill was adopted that would allow rescheduling of horse races.
So what was so controversial about this bill? A suggested amendment to the bill led to a heated argument in the House. The amendment would have banned sales and displays of confederate flags and other memorabilia at county fairs. This ban is already in place at the Ohio State Fair, but not county fairs. Ultimately, the bill passed in the house, but this amendment did not. The vote to table the amendment was largely along party lines, with every Republican except one voting against the amendment, and all Democrats voting for.
COVID-19 liability. The House passed HB 606 back in May, and we discussed it in a blog post here. As a refresher, the bill is meant to protect businesses, schools, corporations, people, etc. from liability. It would accomplish this with the declaration: “orders and recommendations from the Executive Branch, from counties and local municipalities, from boards of health and other agencies, and from any federal government agency, do not create any new legal duties for purposes of tort liability.” In other words, as long as the person, school, or business did not expose or transfer the virus recklessly, intentionally, or with willful and wanton conduct, someone could not bring a civil action for injury, death, or loss to person or property if they contract COVID from the entity. Furthermore, the bill also provides temporary civil immunity for health care providers, grants immunity to the State for care of persons in its custody or if an officer or employee becomes infected with COVID-19 in the performance or nonperformance of governmental functions and public duties, and expands the definition of “governmental functions” for purposes of political subdivision immunity to include actions taken during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Ohio Senate passed a similar bill, SB 308. Unlike the House bill, SB 308 provides immunity only in the health care context. The bill would provide immunity from civil liability for doctors, nurses, and others working in the health care arena during “disasters” like the current pandemic. It would also provide a qualified immunity from liability to services providers for “manufacturing” and any other service “that is part of or outside of a service provider's normal course of business conducted during the period of a disaster or emergency declared due to COVID-19 and ending on April 1, 2021.”
What’s next? The Ohio Senate is scheduled to meet next week on an “as needed” basis. During these tentatively scheduled sessions, the senate could consider the bills that have cleared the House—HBs 496, 67, 33, and 665. If passed by the Senate, the bills would then move on to Governor DeWine for approval. We will keep you updated on what the Senate and Governor decide. In the case of the COVID immunity bills, each bill moved to the opposite house, where they are currently being considered in committees. We’ll have to wait and see if one or both are sent on to DeWine, or if the two houses choose to somehow combine the bills into one document.
“Will I be liable for that?” is a common question we hear in the legal world. COVID-19 has made that question even more commonplace, especially as more businesses reopen or expand services and more people reengage in public activities. About a dozen states have acted on the liability concern and passed COVID-19 liability protections, and Congress is also deliberating whether federal legislation is necessary. Here in Ohio, the House and the Senate have been reviewing separate immunity proposals. Yesterday, Ohio’s House passed its bill, which aims to limit liability in certain situations where a person claims harm from the transmission of COVID-19.
The language of House Bill 606 effectively explains the House’s intent in putting forth its proposal, stating that:
- The Ohio General Assembly is aware that lawsuits related to the COVID-19 health emergency numbering in the thousands are being filed across the country.
- Ohio business owners, small and large, as they begin to re-open their businesses are unsure about what tort liability they may face, and recommendations regarding how best to avoid infection with COVID-19 change frequently.
- Businesses and premises owners have not historically been required to keep members of the public from being exposed to airborne viruses, bacteria, and germs.
- Those individuals who decide to go out into public places are responsible to take those steps they feel are necessary to avoid exposure to COVID-19, such as social distancing and wearing masks.
The House bill declares that for the above reasons, any COVID-19 “orders and recommendations from the Executive Branch, from counties and local municipalities, from boards of health and other agencies, and from any federal government agency, do not create any new legal duties for purposes of tort liability.”
The bill’s reference to not establishing a legal duty in regards to COVID-19 is important, as it forms the basis of immunity from liability for COVID-19 infections. Under Ohio law, a person who can prove that harm resulted because another failed to meet a required duty of care can make a successful claim of negligence and receive damages for harm caused. Negating a legal duty of care for handling of COVID-19 removes the possibility of civil liability.
The House bill clearly lays out its general liability protection in Section 4 and extends the immunity from March 9 to December 31, 2020 to “any person,” which includes an individual, corporation, business trust, estate, trust, partnership, association, school, for-profit, nonprofit, governmental, or religious entity, and state institution of higher education. But it also makes an exception from immunity where a person has acted recklessly, intentionally, or with wanton misconduct:
- No civil action for damages for injury, death, or loss to person or property shall be brought against any person if the cause of action on which the civil action is based, in whole or in part, is that the injury, death, or loss to person or property is caused by the exposure to, or the transmission or contraction of [COVID-19] or any mutation thereof, unless it is established that the exposure to, or the transmission or contraction of, any of those viruses or mutations was by reckless or intentional conduct or with willful or wanton misconduct on the part of the person against whom the action is brought.
Opponents to the bill claim that it would encourage persons not to take any COVID-19 precautions, but proponents argue that the bill does so by discouraging reckless behavior. Under the legislation, to behave recklessly means that “with heedless indifference to the consequences, the person disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the person's conduct is likely to cause an exposure to, or a transmission or contraction of [COVID-19] or any mutation thereof, or is likely to be of a nature that results in an exposure to, or a transmission or contraction of, any of those viruses or mutations.”
In addition to the general immunity protection explained above, the House bill also provides temporary civil immunity for health care providers, grants immunity to the State for care of persons in its custody or if an officer or employee becomes infected with COVID-19 in the performance or nonperformance of governmental functions and public duties, and expands the definition of “governmental functions” for purposes of political subdivision immunity to include actions taken during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Ohio Senate is working on its own version of a COVID-19 immunity bill. A fourth hearing on Senate Bill 308 took place on May 27 before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Several substitute bills have replaced the original bill, and it's yet uncertain what the final version will contain.