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Schools, businesses seek immunity from COVID-19 lawsuits as cases surge

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MADISON (WKOW) -- As school districts prepare to reopen, many are asking for protection from lawsuits if a student or staff member blames them for catching COVID-19.

A handful of school groups, including the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators, are seeking liability protections if someone becomes infected and then later files a lawsuit alleging they didn’t do enough to protect them. 

“This is about flexibility and we need considerations in these extraordinary circumstances,” said Jon Bales, executive director of WASDA.

The association, which represents 421 superintendents in Wisconsin on matters of policy and regulation, said while it’s difficult to prove someone got sick at school they expect some will still seek legal action. 

Without liability protection, school administrators believe litigation would be a distraction as they work to keep schools open during a pandemic. 

Congress is considering adding protections for schools and businesses in the next relief package but lawmakers have yet to finalize what protections would look like.

Supporters of the idea say protections would be limited to the pandemic -- not meant to prevent someone’s ability for suing an employer or school district.

"If someone contracts the virus and a district does all it can do to maintain a safe environment then they would not be subject to litigation," said Bales.

The Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce also supports immunity to give businesses greater protection from lawsuits. 

If immunity is not passed on the federal level, WMC wants state lawmakers to take action.

“Most (lawmakers) are open to the idea but I think time is working against us as lawmakers have already adjourned for the year,” said Scott Manley, WMC’s executive vice president of government relations.

In most workplace lawsuits, it's challenging for employees to prove they contracted the virus while at work compared to other ways such as going to the grocery store or riding on the bus, said Manley.

He believes most of those who do file a lawsuit in these circumstances seek a settlement check rather then going to court.

Labor advocacy groups also say these protections could prevent businesses or schools from being held accountable if they are not doing enough to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

Manley argues without protections, lawsuits could ramp up as cases spike across the state, which he says could slow down business plans to reopen. 

“If they haven’t violated any local health orders or haven’t acted in a malicious fashion they should be immune from lawsuits,” said Manley.

Courtney Terlecki

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