BOISE — A working group of Idaho lawmakers approved proposed legislation Thursday creating a liability shield for protection against lawsuits during declared emergencies such as the coronavirus pandemic.
They also asked Republican Gov. Brad Little to call the entire Legislature back into session to consider it.
A majority of House and Senate lawmakers on the Judiciary and Rules Working Group said such a law is needed to protect government, schools and private businesses from frivolous lawsuits.
“This at least creates some level of predictability and confidence so that people can move forward, and parents and business owners and other decision-makers can make an appropriate decision,” said Republican Rep. Greg Chaney, who wrote the draft legislation.
Little is the only one who can call the part-time Legislature back into session. It otherwise wouldn’t meet until early January.
“The governor very much appreciates the Legislature’s efforts and looks forward to reviewing the report,” Marissa Morrison, Little’s spokeswoman, said in an email.
Lawmakers noted a sense of urgency with schools set to reopen in several weeks amid the pandemic. Many school districts are struggling with decisions about returning students to classrooms or holding classes remotely as virus cases and deaths have surged in the last month.
According to Johns Hopkins University, through Wednesday there were nearly 20,000 infections and 173 deaths in the state.
In addition, the seven-day rolling average of the positivity rate in Idaho has risen from 14.08% on July 15 to 17.83% on Wednesday, according to The COVID Tracking Project. That rate makes Idaho the fifth-worst in the nation in that category.
The positivity rate is a measure of how widespread the disease is in the community. The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested. Studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.
Lawmakers in favor of the legislation say current law leaves businesses and schools open to lawsuits during an emergency. Republican Rep. Ryan Kerby said it would be difficult for schools to follow local and state coronavirus guidelines, making it easy for a family to sue if a child got the virus at school, passed it on to a grandparent who died as a result.
Businesses could also be sued if someone believes they became infected while at the site, lawmakers said.
Lawmakers opposed to the legislation said a liability shield would remove incentives for businesses, schools and government to take precautions. They also feared the draft legislation was overly broad because emergencies are often declared in the state involving floods, fires or other circumstances. That means any new liability immunity law would essentially be in effect all the time.
A motion restricting the liability immunity to COVID-19 failed.
Lawmakers held separate votes Thursday during the online meeting for both House and Senate members, first to approve the draft legislation and then recommend a special session to the governor.
Nine of the 27 lawmakers voted against the draft legislation, but only two voted against recommending a special session.
How a special session would work during the pandemic and how much it would cost is unclear. Officials have said lawmakers would have to be in the Statehouse for their votes to count.
State officials in 2015 said the first day of the special session called that year would cost about $36,000 with the price tag of each additional about $6,000. A special session this year during the pandemic, state officials said, could also include hazard pay and overtime for employees. Other costs would include chamber viewing screens, videoconferencing licenses and setting up phone testimony for the public.
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