The North Dakota Senate has approved a bill that would shield businesses from liability in the event any of their employees contracted novel coronavirus at work.
According to The Grand Forks Herald, the proposal was passed 41-6 on Wednesday. While the state House of Representatives had already approved the same bill, the Senate made several minor amendments to its language and provisions.
As such, the legislation will be passed back to the House before it can be enrolled and sent to the governor’s desk.
The Grand Forks Herald notes that the bill, if enacted, would effectively block most coronavirus-related lawsuits in the workplace. However, the proposal does contain several provisions: workers may still sue if, for instance, they believe their employer intended to harm them.
While the bill received overwhelming support in both the North Dakota House and Senate, it was not passed without resistance.
In a January publication, The Associated Press recalls how some union leaders protested the legislation, saying it was essentially a blank check for negligent employers to expose workers to a potentially deadly disease.
Landis Larson, president of the state AFL-CIO, told the House of Representatives that even if many North Dakota businesses are doing their best to protect employees from coronavirus, some are taking few if any precautions.
“Shielding these bad actors from litigation would only encourage them to ignore the scant guidelines on infectious disease,” Larson said in a January hearing, adding that the bill gives employees and families “no legal recourse.”
Similarly, Fargo-based attorney Tim O’Keefe suggested the bill is “redundant and potentially unconstitutional”—and that its passage could “clog up the court systems” when challenges are inevitably filed.
Nevertheless, North Dakota conservatives say liability protection is important for small businesses suffering financial losses amidst the ongoing pandemic.
Sen. Jerry Klein (R-Dist. 14) said he believes lawmakers can help restore local companies’ confidence.
“Over 30 states have already passed COVID-19 business liability protection. This is not a get-out-of-jail-free card,” Sen. Klein said earlier this week. “If there were malicious acts or disregards for public safety, this legislation holds those poor decisions and bad intentions accountable.
“Those cases,” Klein added, “can still pursue legal action. We hope [this legislation] will provide a safe harbor and protection for our businesses to continue to operate.”
Sen. Erin Oban, a Bismarck-based Democrat, offered some dissent, saying that employers who made mistakes and did not properly safeguard their workers’ safety should not be offered respite from litigation.