(The Center Square) – Gov. Bill Lee and Tennessee lawmakers are discussing the possibility of a special session to address a bill that would make it more difficult to sue businesses over negligence claims surrounding COVID-19.
The legislation was one of several bills that failed to get through both chambers of the General Assembly after budget discussions took the session through Thursday night and into early Friday morning.
“Conversations about the prospect of [a] special session are ongoing and we will have more to say about that this week,” Lee’s press secretary, Gillum Ferguson, told The Center Square on Monday.
The time-sensitive bill would require that a person demonstrate with clear and convincing evidence that a business or other entity operated with gross negligence or willful misconduct, causing that person to contract COVID-19 – both higher standards than the standards for an average tort claim.
This heightened standard would not apply to businesses that didn’t follow public health guidance, but those businesses would be protected under standard tort law.
Supporters of the legislation said the bill would incentivize businesses to reopen by preventing frivolous lawsuits from even being filed in the first place. Opponents worry the bill would make it too difficult for a person to win this kind of lawsuit because the standard tort proceedings already are difficult to win.
Although the Republican majority and some in the Democratic minority supported the general concept behind the legislation, House and Senate Republicans could not agree on a provision that would enact the bill retroactively, so that it would apply to claims from March 5 or later.
A version of the bill that included the retroactive provision passed the Senate on the final day of session, but it failed to get enough votes in the House. Supporters of the provision said most COVID-19 claims will be from interactions before the legislation would be passed, but opponents said a retroactive provision likely is unconstitutional and its inclusion could jeopardize the entire bill in the court system.
The General Assembly successfully passed a budget bill and anti-abortion legislation and took a major step on a provision to include right-to-work protections in the state constitution. With the main focus being budget concerns and COVID-19-related issues, however, a few other bills failed to advance.
A bill that sought to repeal occupational licensing laws for locksmiths was placed on the regular House calendar but never was called for a vote. Legislation that would require Lee to go through the Legislature to approve refugee settlements remained in committee, and legislation for permitless and constitutional carry of firearms also remained in committee.
Some Democrats tried to introduce amendments to legislation that would remove or block the view of monuments to the Confederacy, but Republicans blocked those efforts. The issue caused tense debate and accusations of racism from Democratic lawmakers.