Small-business owners here in Minnesota face a daunting challenge: How do they reopen safely while protecting their customers and employees? Many say they simply can’t do it unless they have some sort of liability protection. You see, Minnesota small-business owners are deeply concerned about the possibility of trial lawyers exploiting the pandemic for financial gain.
In a recent survey conducted by the National Federation of Independent Business, or NFIB, nearly 70% of small-business owners said they were concerned or deeply concerned about liability as they reopen. Even if the owners comply with state, local, and industry-specific provisions on social distancing, wearing face coverings, or putting up Plexiglass barriers, they may still be hit with unjustified lawsuits related to COVID-19 by ruthless lawyers.
Businesses large and small are working hard to bring back family-supporting jobs and serve their customers. During these unprecedented times, business owners should not be at risk of potentially bankrupting litigation.
Even one lawsuit can wipe out a small business — especially one already teetering on the edge and trying to survive in the face of the COVID-19 crisis. The cost of putting up a legal defense is more than most mom-and-pop shops can afford in normal times, let alone during a post-pandemic recovery. Even if they did everything they could to protect their customers and employees, they may have no choice but to settle. Plaintiff lawyers know how easy it is to force a settlement even with a questionable claim.
States across the country have begun enacting liability protections for businesses struggling to reopen. Seven states already have passed protections for small-business owners, giving them peace of mind as they reopen and restart their states’ economies. In Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, Alabama, North Carolina, Utah, and Wyoming, lawmakers have taken crucial action to help business owners who otherwise would have been reluctant to reopen, which further damages already hurt economies. It’s an effort to make sure businesses have the confidence to start serving customers again.
In Minnesota, Sen. Warren Limmer and Rep. Peggy Scott have introduced legislation to protect businesses, including local governments, from frivolous and meritless lawsuits. The bill clarifies that retailers or other businesses or organizations that have the public on their premises have no duty of care above and beyond current safety guidelines to warn or try to eliminate the risk of COVID-19. The bill would provide protections to manufacturers that sped up production of critical personal protection equipment or businesses that converted their production to produce personal protective equipment on an emergency basis to help fight the pandemic. Importantly, the bill requires the defendant to have been hospitalized or experience serious illness from COVID-19 in order to file suit.
Minnesota lawmakers need to address this problem and act on this legislation now, in the July special session. This important bill was not even considered in the recently adjourned June special session. Our small-business owners and job creators need peace of mind as they get back to work and get back to doing what they do best: keeping Minnesota’s economy running. During the economic recovery, the state government needs to protect small businesses that may face unjustified lawsuits. Those small businesses can then help lead the state’s recovery and also save the 1.2 million jobs they create in the state.
Mike Hickey is state director for NFIB in Minnesota, a small-business organization with more than 10,000 members statewide.