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Opinion: Protect essential businesses from COVID-19 lawsuits

John Walsh

As the birthplace of the assembly line, Michigan has a long and rich manufacturing history. In fact, manufacturers have always been the backbone of our economy, providing jobs for our communities and critical supplies and equipment for the rest of the world.

Today, our manufacturers are aiding recovery efforts by making much-needed products, particularly personal protective equipment, medication and ventilators that will help fight the pandemic. And as we continue to produce, we’re focused on the safety of our employees and customers, adopting every reasonable precaution against the spread of COVID-19.

As we fight off this virus, manufacturers need help to keep our essential businesses from falling victim to baseless and costly lawsuits. Health authorities are frequently updating guidelines for what businesses need to do to keep their workforce protected from COVID-19. This is understandable because the science continues to improve. But as a result, a growing number of trial lawyers are trying to exploit the legal uncertainty created by evolving guidance and rules. This wave of predatory litigation could slow down manufacturing and, in turn, the nation’s recovery.

Manufacturers are aiding recovery efforts by making much-needed products, Walsh writes.

Most manufacturers have kept their doors open since the virus hit, continuing to produce the goods everyone needs. As the virus spread and the country faced shortages of critical supplies for front-line workers, manufacturers modified and shifted operations quickly to produce the most in-demand products. That hard work is continuing even now.  

These companies are also taking safety precautions very seriously. Doing things like installing shields to divide workstations, administering temperature checks and using face coverings, manufacturers are making proactive investments to fend off the virus in their workplaces. Businesses are focused on doing the right thing for the right reasons, but that hasn’t stopped the number of COVID-19-related liability suits from rising nationwide.

Unfortunately, liability lawsuits — and even the threat of them — have widespread implications. Because of the costs and resources associated with fighting a lawsuit in court, many small or mid-sized businesses will feel forced to settle, potentially paying large sums of money despite doing nothing wrong. Going to trial to defend themselves would be even more of a costly and time-consuming challenge, diverting resources away from production and worker safety.

Larger manufacturers may have the means to fight these cases and defend their safety measures, but smaller businesses often don’t. And the longer lawmakers go without protecting businesses and manufacturers from these dangerous lawsuits, the more likely it is that other lawyers will feel emboldened to take advantage of the legal gray area, threatening the nation’s economic recovery in the process.

Congress should take steps to ensure that our legal system isn’t abused to profit off the uncertainty the pandemic created. To help protect essential businesses as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, Congress should consider a proposal from the National Association of Manufacturers that suggests guidelines for liability protection while the virus is still spreading.

These protections would rightly safeguard manufacturers and other businesses doing right by our communities, ensuring that those businesses which take every necessary and reasonable precaution to keep workers safe will not be penalized. These protections would be temporary in nature, and they would still leave negligent businesses open to legal ramifications.  

Our representatives in Congress can help local businesses across Michigan by simply ensuring that those who do the right thing aren’t punished. Manufacturers and other essential businesses need these protections if we are going to set our nation back on the path to recovery.

John Walsh is president and CEO of the Michigan Manufacturers Association.