COVID-19 liability protections a 2021 priority for Virginia Republicans


Legislation that would have bolstered protections for businesses from COVID-19-related lawsuits failed to pass the Virginia General Assembly during the 83-day special season, but Republicans plan to reintroduce the measure during the 2021 legislative session.

The proposed law would require a person to prove a greater standard of negligence than a usual tort claim to successfully sue a business for causing them to contract COVID-19. If a business is following federal, state and local laws, policies and guidance, the proposed law would require a person to prove gross negligence or willful misconduct on the part of the business caused them to contract COVID-19. If a business is not following all of guidance, they would be protected under normal tort law.

Republican lawmakers introduced bills to enact the reform during the Virginia special session, but they did not make it to the floor of either chamber for a vote.

House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah told The Center Square it will remain a priority going into next year.

Many businesses are “hanging on by a thin thread” because of the COVID-19-related restrictions, Gilbert said. He said removing any concerns from businesses would foster better certainty for them in these uncertain times.

Robert Melvin, the director of government affairs at the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging & Travel Association, told The Center Square the reform would protect businesses who are doing the right thing from facing lawsuits while still holding bad actors accountable.

The concern of a potential lawsuit has produced uncertainty for businesses and caused hesitation in reopening, Melvin said. Despite relaxed restrictions, some restaurants still are only open for takeout because they’re terrified of something happening, he said.

During the special session, lawmakers approved additional education funding to offset COVID-19 losses, flexibility for housing assistance and funding to pay down the debt of utility customers who have not paid their bills. Lawmakers also advanced a series of criminal justice reform bills, including a prohibition on no-knock raids, heavier restrictions on chokeholds and heavier restrictions on police departments purchasing military surplus weapons.

Although some of the moderate criminal justice reforms received bipartisan support, the bolder reforms generally were pushed by Democrats and opposed by Republicans. Gilbert said Democrats prioritized an agenda of beating up on police and making life easier for criminals rather than addressing the needs of businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

House and Senate Democratic leaders could not be reached for comment about whether they will support these business protections next session.

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