Ohio Legislative Update
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.