Iowa Republican legislators are fast-tracking a bill that would give meatpacking plants, nursing homes and other businesses broad immunity from coronavirus lawsuits despite criticism that it would also enable them to ignore workplace safety requirements.
The bill, which the state House passed Friday with only Republican support, is supported by groups that represent hospitals and doctors, restaurants, casinos, grocery stores, bankers, meat processors, truckers and insurance companies.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, labor unions and the Iowa State Bar Association are among those who oppose the measure.
Republican Rep. Gary Carlson of Muscatine, who managed the bill in the House, said the owners of small businesses want to reopen but need certainty they can't be sued by their employees.
"They're trying to follow guidelines but are scared to death they're going to be sued by someone when they tried to do their best," he said.
Rep. Chris Hall, a Sioux City Democrat, said most businesses will work to protect customers and workers and deserve protection from frivolous lawsuits, but the broad protections in the bill also will help some hide the truth.
"Essentially, this means that companies have been given the privilege of legal protection without the responsibility to maintain a safe workplace to prevent further spread of a deadly disease in our state," he said.
The Iowa Association for Justice, a state organization of about 1,000 attorneys who fight for individual and civil rights, said more Iowans in nursing homes will die because of the bill and "and individual Iowans will have no power to seek accountability or answers."
"It's pathetic. Iowans are looking for leadership, and they expect better than this. If no one is accountable, no one is safe," the group's executive director, Brad Lint, said in a statement.
As in many states, the coronavirus struck Iowa nursing homes particularly hard, with nursing home residents accounting for half of the state's 622 C0VID-19 deaths. The state reported Tuesday that 39 facilities have had outbreaks, with more than 1,560 residents testing positive for the virus since it arrived in Iowa. Many states have passed legislation limited to protecting healthcare and elderly care facilities from lawsuits related to coronavirus illnesses and deaths.
Iowa's bill offers protection against civil damage lawsuits for healthcare providers and manufacturers or distributors of household disinfecting or cleaning supplies. It includes many other businesses by stating that anyone who wants to sue must first have been hospitalized or died, and that there must be an intent on the part of a business or employer to cause harm and actual malice. The measure says anyone who is in substantial compliance with federal or state statues, regulations, orders or public health guidance cannot be sued for civil damages. The bill is retroactive to Jan. 1, 2020.
It also would protect owners of meatpacking plants, which also have been heavily affected by the virus, with thousands of workers sickened. The Iowa counties that have had the heaviest concentration of virus activity have been those with meatpacking plants. Owners of a wide range of other businesses, including restaurants, hair salons and others who serve the public, expressed concern that they could be sued if someone claimed to have contracted the virus at their business.
Oklahoma, Utah and Wyoming enacted similar laws in May that were signed by Republican governors. Several other states have bills pending or have attempted similar action. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell proposed including nationwide liability protection in a coronavirus relief bill, but his efforts so far have not succeeded.
Louise Melling, ACLU deputy legal director, said she has concerns about the implications of shutting off people's ability to go to court to hold business owners accountable if they're not protecting workers.
"What are we trying to protect and at the expense of whom?" she said. "What are we saying as a country about what we're going to insist on for the safety of workers?"
The Iowa House approved the bill late Friday with only Republican support after ending debate by Democrats. It now shifts to the Senate, which is also controlled by Republicans. Senate Republican Leader Jack Whitver has said the bill is a priority for him.
Because the Senate passed a different version of the bill in February without the immunity language, the measure can gain final approval if the amended language get a majority vote. It then would go to Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds, who hasn't said if she would sign the measure.