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Senate Republicans' Proposal for Liability Protection

July 17, 2020
 
 

A proposal by Senate Republicans, being reviewed by the Trump administration, would make it harder for those who are infected with the coronavirus to sue universities, businesses and others, The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday.

The American Council on Education, representing the nation’s colleges and universities, as well as business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have been pushing for liability protection, fearing lawsuits as colleges reopen.

According to a summary of the proposal reviewed by the Journal, defendants in coronavirus cases would only be held liable if they didn’t make reasonable efforts to comply with public health guidelines and instead demonstrated gross negligence or intentional misconduct. The defendants would have the right to move the case to federal court if they so choose, which, the Journal said, could be more favorable than having cases decided by state courts.

For coronavirus-related personal injury and medical liability cases, the proposal would require plaintiffs to have clear and convincing evidence and would place a cap on damages. ACE and other proponents had said in lobbying Congress they are only seeking temporary protection during the pandemic. The changes being proposed would run through 2024, according to the report.

It was unclear from the Journal report whether the proposal would shield higher education institutions, as well, from other suits, including those over the return of room and board fees, if campuses are forced to close, as associations representing colleges want.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said a liability shield is a requirement for Republicans to agree to another coronavirus relief package. But it is expected to face opposition from Democrats and teachers' unions. Senator Patty Murray, the top Democrat on the education committee, told Inside Higher Ed in a statement in May that the federal government should be giving colleges “clear, enforceable standards and guidance of what’s expected of them, not protecting them from lawsuits.”

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