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Florida lawmakers eying coronavirus liability protections for businesses

Coronavirus

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (Cap News Services) — Businesses will likely be given some limited immunity from COVID lawsuits the next time the Florida Legislature meets in the spring.

At least one suit has been filed in Miami against Publix Supermarkets, claiming wrongful death.

Publix deli employee Gerardo Gutierrez passed away in April after a battle with COVID-19. His family is now suing the grocery chain, alleging policies the company put in place at the start of the pandemic resulted in his death.

“Their father died because Publix said you can’t wear a mask,” said Michael Levine, an attorney representing the Gutierrez family.

Legal liability protection for companies in the age of COVID-19 is expected to be a top priority for Florida lawmakers.

“It’s something that I think that we should do. That would give businesses confidence to be able to operate,” Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls said.

The Senate president and House speaker have given few details but have said they don’t support total immunity.

“I cannot imagine that we are going to let people off the hook for negligence,” Senate President Wilton Simpson said.

As an example of what kind of protections businesses are looking for, the Florida Chamber of Commerce pointed to a Pinellas County case where a man sued a restaurant after entering and not seeing anyone wearing masks.

“And while he did not contract COVID, he was so concerned about it that he’s suing for emotional damages for $1 million. So there are kinds of lawsuits like that out there as well,” said Florida Chamber Director of Business, Economic Development and Innovation Policy Carolyn Johnson.

Whether any potential protections passed next year would apply to the Publix case isn’t clear, but the family’s attorney is optimistic their case will be unaffected.

“Certainly an employer like Publix shouldn’t be trying to take away the liberties and freedoms of its workers to decide how they’re going to stay healthy, how they’re going to stay safe,” said Levine.

Legislative leaders say they’ll likely take up liability protection legislation early in the 2021 legislative session. The Florida Chamber of Commerce said it hopes any protections will apply retroactively in order to cover the entire pandemic.

And while Florida leaders have limited their discussion on liability protections to essential businesses, other states that have enacted similar legislation have also granted protections to long-term care facilities and schools.

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