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Opinion: Essential businesses face threat of unwarranted lawsuits

Mark A. Griffin

When the coronavirus pandemic struck the U.S., shoppers began panic-buying to shore up resources to weather the storm. Unfortunately, many customers were met with empty shelves and the inability to access basic needs. Thankfully, convenience stores across Michigan were there to help, staying open to ensure critical food and supplies were available, in addition to fuel and other services. 

But by staying open, as stores were encouraged to do so by the Department of Homeland Security, convenience store owners are now at additional risk of litigation, unless Congress acts quickly to pass commonsense litigation protection for essential businesses. 

If we allow convenience stores to be sued out of business, particularly those that have made every effort to protect their customers and employees, it's the people in our community that will suffer. 

Convenience stores have been a consistent location for Detroit residents to buy essential supplies. The Michigan Department of Agriculture has labeled 19 Detroit neighborhoods as “food deserts," which is an urban area that lacks access to grocery stores. In 2018, it was reported that 30,000 Detroiters do not have access to a full-line grocer. For many residents, convenience stores are the main supplier of essential goods. 

This is, in part, why convenience stores are deemed essential by the federal government and the state of Michigan. 

Convenience stores across the state have prioritized the safety of their customers and employees by following the mandated health and safety guidelines established by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Employees wear a mask or face covering over their nose and mouth, and have taken extra measures to ensure that stores are cleaned and sanitized regularly. 

Convenience stores that stayed open during the pandemic are now at risk of COVID-19-related lawsuits, Griffin writes.

While these measures are necessary and have been taken in stride, abiding by federal and state orders has created logistical challenges, in addition to the financial challenges stores face because of the pandemic. 

Fewer people traveling means fewer people stopping by convenience stores for gas, and more people staying at home has decreased the number of shoppers they have daily, leading to a substantial decrease in revenue. Some stores are reporting revenue losses of over 45%. Despite these challenges, they have remained committed to staying open, and continue to be available for neighborhood residents. 

But convenience stores’ ability to continue operating is threatened by potential COVID-19 related litigation just for staying open. Even if unfounded lawsuits get thrown out, the legal fees alongside the decrease in revenue could mean the end for stores across the state. Seven hundred COVID-19 related lawsuits have already been filed, and we can expect to see more in the coming months. 

At the start of the year, no one could have predicted where we would be now, and most essential businesses have done everything in their power to protect the health and wellness of their employees and customers in this unprecedented time. 

With the Senate back in session, our elected officials have the opportunity to protect workers who have been on the front lines of supporting their neighborhoods. Our home-state Sen. Gary Peters should join his colleagues and support essential businesses by backing reasonable liability protections. 

We can all agree that those who have been reckless should not be shielded from lawsuits, but essential businesses that have done their best and made every effort to stay open while implementing safety measures should not also have to face unwarranted lawsuits that could run us out of business.

Mark A. Griffin is president of the Michigan Petroleum Association and the Michigan Association of Convenience Stores