Arizona health care workers now have protections against COVID lawsuits

Governor Doug Ducey signed SB1377 into law this week, which gives health care workers and various entities — including businesses, schools, the government and religious institutions — protections against COVID-19-related damage claims from patients and consumers. 

Under this law, health care workers are shielded from allegations of damage related to the public health emergency unless the plaintiff can provide “clear and convincing” evidence that the provider acted negligently. The bill is retroactive and will account for claims dating back as far as March 11, 2020.

 

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The bill protects providers from both injuries caused by COVID-19 and any problems arising from delays in COVID-19 treatments or failure to provide treatment.

The Governor spoke to the bill’s significance upon signing it:

“Arizona’s health care professionals and others on the front lines have worked day and night this last year to protect sick individuals and vulnerable populations. We have taken steps to protect both health care heroes and vulnerable Arizonans during the pandemic, and today’s legislation strengthens those protections. My thanks to Senator Vince Leach for leading on this bill.”

The bill’s sponsor, Senate President Pro Tempore Vince Leach, has spent the last few months advocating for these protections in the Legislature. He expressed his gratitude of its passage on Monday:

“Small businesses need certainty under the law that if they act in good faith, they’ll be protected from frivolous lawsuits. I’m grateful to the organizations and fellow legislators who supported Senate Bill 1377, and to Governor Ducey for signing this important legislation.”

Despite this support from prominent state leaders, it had its share of opposition in the Legislature. It just barely passed both chambers in late March, receiving a 31-29 vote in the House and a 16-14 vote in the Senate — both of which fell entirely along party lines. This has proven to be a largely partisan issue throughout the country.

Opponents expressed concern about the extent of protections provided to health care workers, claiming they go too far and shield them from legitimate claims of wrongdoing.

Democratic Sen. Martin Quezada spoke to this opposition in SB 1377’s final Senate hearing:

“This bill is unnecessary. The proponents of it are pushing this claim that we are protecting vulnerable businesses from an onslaught of frivolous lawsuits. But that rationale is fairly weak, and in reality, workers who contract COVID-19, they already face very significant hurdles in order to show that their provider’s carelessness caused them to contract that virus, and that they were harmed by that carelessness. That is already very difficult to prove.”

The Association for Aging and Retired Persons (AARP), for instance, raised concerns about the bill’s impact on elderly Arizonans, who are sometimes mistreated by their providers. They asked that the bill be amended to exclude long term care (LTC) organizations from these protections.

Dana Marie Kennedy, state director of the AARP of Arizona, explained the organization’s concerns in her testimony on the bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee in February:

“LTC facilities must remain responsible and held to a higher standard when their wrong doing threatens the health and lives of residents and staff. Litigation must remain an option of last resort. This legislation will put too high of a bar on families who are seeking justice; no family member who has lost a loved one due to neglect or abuse pursues this course of action lightly.”

After this input, lawmakers added a section to the bill stating that if a damage claim in a LTC or residential facility didn’t directly relate to COVID-19, the institution would be responsible for proving that their actions were related to pandemic response in order to be protected.

After a Republican-led federal effort to implement a nationwide COVID-19 liability shield failed to progress last year in Congress, Arizona joins the numerous states who have enacted their own protections. These states — including Tennessee, Utah and North Carolina — have used either the legislative process or executive action to implement domestic liability protections.