SOURCE: The Joplin Globe

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — A bill that would protect businesses, churches, health care facilities and other entities from liability of COVID-19 exposure is now headed to the House after passing in the Missouri Senate on Tuesday.

Senate Bill 51, sponsored by Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, R-Parkville, protects entities from civil actions related to exposure to COVID-19 unless the exposure was due to recklessness or willful misconduct.

The bill also would allow entities to be exempt from liability if an exposure warning notice is posted at the entrance. The notice reads, “WARNING … Under Missouri law, any individual entering the premises or engaging the services of the business waives all civil liability against the individual or entity for any damages based on inherent risks associated with an exposure or potential exposure to COVID-19, except for recklessness or willful misconduct.”

Entities that sell or donate products to combat COVID-19, such as masks, are free from liability if the entity doesn’t make the product in its ordinary course of business.

There are added protections for the entity if the product had to be manufactured in a modified process or if the use of the product is different from its recommended purpose.

Other provisions in the bill include a statute of limitations of two years for COVID-19 exposure action and one year for COVID-19 medical liability action.

With a 20-13 vote, SB 51 comfortably passed in the Senate. An emergency clause failed on a 19-15 vote, so the earliest the bill could go into effect is Aug. 28.

Sen. Bill White, R-Joplin, supported the emergency clause.

“I think you’ll see even more lawsuits filed in that interim” before it takes effect, he said.

White was disappointed though not shocked that the clause was defeated, hinting that some senators switched their votes.

“I think it’s very important that people vote the way they tell you they’re going to,” he said. “In this building, it’s a very important thing, and those who don’t — people aren’t going to trust them.”

Sen. Mike Moon, R-Ash Grove, was among the few Republicans to vote against SB 51.

Moon said in a written statement that the aim of the bill “was to protect businesses, hospitals and entities providing products designed to protect against the coronavirus. … The bill fell short of that aim by giving immunity to health care facilities but not to all businesses.”

Moon’s statement went on to include information from legal experts that said the businesses may lose a minimum of $5,000 to $25,000 to respond to a lawsuit brought against them. Moon said a provision of “loser pays” should have been included in the bill.

On Feb. 2, Moon proposed an amendment to SB 51 that would have given religious organizations blanket immunity from COVID-19 exposure liability and exempted them from the requirement of posting the exposure warning notice.

The wording was changed to say that reckless conduct would not waive liability.

During debate, White asked Moon his thoughts on a hypothetical situation.

White asked Moon if he had a problem with a minister and council of elders knowingly having COVID-19, not telling anyone and exposing the entire congregation.

Moon said that because of the high recovery rate for COVID-19, “no, I don’t have a problem with that.”

Moon went on to argue that individuals should be responsible and not go out if they are sick.

“You’re assuming that everyone is going to be reasonable,” White said. “We know from this chamber not everyone is reasonable.”

White said religious organizations should not be protected by blanket immunity if they intentionally expose anyone to COVID-19.

He argued that everyone, including ministers, should be held accountable for their actions.

“I’m not going to bring suit against a brother in Christ, I’m just going to say, ‘Well you know what, I better go find a different (church),’” Moon said.

The amendment was adopted by a 16-14 vote. White; Sen. Dave Schatz, R- Sullivan; Sen. Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia; and Sen. Lincoln Hough, R-Springfield, joined the Democrats to vote against the amendment.

Later changes to the bill gave it the current language that religious organizations are accountable if the plaintiff can prove intentional misconduct.