Gov. Tom Wolf will need to expand liability protections to manufacturers, small businesses and more health care providers or risk Pennsylvania businesses refusing to open for fear of frivolous COVID-19 related lawsuits, said a coalition of state associations.
In early May, Wolf signed an executive order that provided legal protections to health care providers against medical malpractice suits related to treatment of COVID-19.
A group of leaders from numerous state associations, including the Pennsylvania Medical Society, Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry and the PA Manufacturers Association, asked the governor to offer similar protection to more industries during a media call last week.
Expanding liability protection to more businesses would protect companies like manufacturers, many of which transformed their productions to help supply goods such as personal protective equipment to hospitals, said David Taylor, president of the PA Manufacturers Association.
By failing to give protections to manufacturers, the state would be ignoring the risk businesses took to support their communities, he said.
“Manufacturers accepted that challenge and brought on that risk,” he said. “It is disappointing that the governor would fail to recognize the contributions made by manufacturers.”
Liability protection could also let small businesses feel comfortable reopening their storefronts without fear that they could be sued if someone contracts the virus while in their store.
“There is a critical question there: do I re-risk everything I’ve built, or do I make the decision to remain closed or stay closed,” said Gordon Denlinger, Pennsylvania state director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses. “Our concern is that we don’t get the reopening we need because of the threat of these lawsuits.”
Proponents of increasing the protections for health care providers say that Wolf’s orders don’t protect as many providers as similar laws in New York and New Jersey, both of which were enacted in April.
While the governor’s executive order protects health care workers providing care to COVID-19 patients in hospitals and nursing homes, it does not protect physicians providing care in their offices from malpractice lawsuits, according to Dr. Lawrence John, president of the Pennsylvania Medical Society.
“As our state reopens, physicians in all of these settings will play a role in ensuring that Pennsylvanians have access to care if they come down with symptoms,” John said. “Since attorneys can’t sue health care workers providing care in hospitals, physicians will be an easy target for these claims.”
The order also excludes long-term care facilities, where 3,557 of the state’s 5,567 total deaths occurred, according to a report by the Pennsylvania Department of Health on June 1.
Gene Barr, president of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, said that the coalition is not condoning blanketed immunity for all health care providers and businesses, but rather targeted temporary immunity with strict guidelines.
“If they disregard the guidelines, they lose the protection,” he said. “We have businesses fighting for survival and we need to get them back as soon as we can. The fear of lawsuits will hinder that.”