The COVID-19 pandemic has been a challenge the likes of which the United States has not faced in generations. But as with crises throughout our history, manufacturers have helped to lead the response and recovery. As soon as the pandemic struck, manufacturers in Minnesota and across the country hurried to do their part. Countless companies ramped up operations to produce personal protective equipment for health care workers, medicines for patients and food for American families.
Remote work isn’t possible for many roles in these essential companies, and Minnesota’s manufacturers have spent millions of dollars on critical investments to keep facilities safe in the face of COVID-19. But now the industry faces the added threat of a flood of opportunistic and costly lawsuits that do nothing to help our people or communities.
In normal times, companies can be held liable — and rightly so — if injury results from failure to follow appropriate standards of care. Manufacturers are vigilant in rooting out risk, and that has been especially true during this pandemic. They’ve installed barriers between workstations, added remote temperature sensors at building entries, changed door handles to foot pulls, implemented aggressive sanitation protocols and distributed masks, face shields and gowns to their workforce.
Still, operating during a pandemic means the science and guidance from government agencies are always changing. Researchers are learning more about COVID-19 on a daily basis and updating recommendations in real time. The result is a legal “gray area” that unscrupulous lawyers want to exploit — seeking to hold companies responsible for the spread of COVID-19 (or fear of spread), even if these companies are trying to do the right thing. Lawyers can invent their own standards of care and then use years of costly and complex litigation to force businesses to prove their actions were reasonable.
In Minnesota alone, COVID-19-related legal complaints have more than doubled since April. The trend is upsetting, but not because manufacturers want to buck accountability. On the contrary, creating safe work environments and making safe products is the mission of manufacturing. These lawsuits are concerning because they threaten jobs and the vital work manufacturers are leading.
When the outcome of litigation is so uncertain — and a lack of legal precedent makes all of these cases complete unknowns — legal counsel frequently recommend a settlement to avoid the expense of fighting in court. But the payouts only make it more difficult for businesses to pay workers and continue to produce essential goods, and the promise of “easy money” in turn attracts more lawsuits based on meritless claims.
Policymakers, including Minnesota’s members of Congress, must defend against these bad-faith legal attacks, which could derail America’s economic recovery. They should respond by insisting on a fair legal framework in the next COVID-19 bill. The National Association of Manufacturers has crafted a roadmap for liability reform to help guide their way. It outlines temporary measures related solely to COVID-19 that can provide much-needed certainty for companies doing the right thing, promising them that they will not be penalized for acting based on the best information available. That same framework would give businesses of all kinds a powerful incentive to follow the science and evolving guidance and to continue to pursue innovative safety measures.
No one wants to shield a business that ignores health and safety guidance, nor does anyone intend to tear down vital worker protections. The goal of COVID-19 liability protections is simply to treat companies that are keeping us safe — like those good Samaritans that hurried to repurpose production lines to make PPE — as the national assets they are, so they can keep up the hard work of helping America beat COVID-19.
Jay Timmons is president and CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers in Washington, D.C.