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COVID liability limits proposed in Nebraska; opponent says bills would 'limit justice'

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LINCOLN — Nebraska hospitals, businesses and schools would be protected from most coronavirus-related lawsuits under a bill introduced Friday in the Legislature.

State Sen. Tom Briese of Albion sponsored Legislative Bill 139, along with Sen. Matt Williams of Gothenburg. It was among 212 bills and five constitutional amendments introduced by state lawmakers this week.

Briese said his proposal is intended to help Nebraska recover from the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 1,800 people here, more than tripled the number of unemployed workers and caused widespread economic disruption.

“As many segments of society struggle to deal with and rebound from the impact of the pandemic, they face the threat of needless lawsuits related to COVID,” he said. “It’s incumbent on us to provide some level of protection against such lawsuits while ensuring the safety of our citizens and holding bad actors accountable.”

His proposal would offer legal protection in multiple ways. First, it would bar lawsuits unless someone was hospitalized or died from the coronavirus. It would also prohibit lawsuits against entities that were following federal and state laws or public health orders and guidance.

It would not allow a lawsuit unless an entity had acted with gross negligence or willful misconduct, rather than ordinary negligence. Finally, it would raise the standard of proof, making it harder for people bringing lawsuits to prove that they had been hurt because of gross negligence or willful misconduct.

The bill would also offer additional protection to health care providers for care given — or not given — because of their response to the coronavirus.

“The last thing our hometown heroes need is to worry about being sued for canceling an elective procedure or an accidental exposure when they were doing the right thing all along,” Briese said.

But Andy Sibbernsen, an Omaha attorney and president of the Nebraska Association of Trial Attorneys, panned the proposal. He said the organization always opposes legislation limiting people’s ability to go to court if they are injured by someone who did not follow accepted policies and procedures.

Such bills “limit justice, and they limit people’s access to the court system,” he said. “If people and businesses are acting reasonably, there’s no reason to be worried about it.”

Briese said he is not aware of coronavirus-related lawsuits in the state but said he has heard from a number of entities that are fearful about the possibilities. LB 139 would apply only to events occurring after the measure passes. It would not apply to anything that happened previously.

Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha offered a different COVID-19 liability measure on Thursday. His LB 52 would offer even broader protection, barring any civil action for injury or death stemming from exposure to the coronavirus after the bill takes effect.

But Lathrop, who is a trial attorney, said he introduced the bill to spark a conversation about whether liability protection is needed. He said COVID-19 has become so widespread, it could be difficult for people to prove where they were exposed.

Among other bills introduced Friday:

Emergency contraception. Hospitals would be required to offer emergency contraception to women who have been sexually assaulted under LB 183, introduced by Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha. The bill would provide for state sanctions against a hospital that failed to provide information about the option or to offer such care.

School property tax. Property taxes would be limited to 33% of school funding under Legislative Resolution 13CA, introduced by Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon. Statewide, property taxes now cover about 60% of the cost of K-12 education in Nebraska.

Facial surveillance. Police and other government entities would be barred from using or keeping facial surveillance, also known as facial recognition, data under LB 199, introduced by Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha. The bill would also prohibit facial surveillance from being used in court cases. The bill includes a statement of intent that says that facial surveillance technology is less accurate in identifying women, young people and people of color and that using such systems is like requiring everyone to carry and display photo identification at all times.

Fireworks. Nebraskans might be able to get some additional kinds of fireworks under LB 152, introduced by Sen. Julie Slama of Peru. The bill would remove almost all state-imposed limits on consumer fireworks and would rely on federal regulations and testing by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission instead.

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Martha Stoddard keeps legislators honest from The World-Herald's Lincoln bureau, where she covers news from the State Capitol. Follow her on Twitter @StoddardOWH. Phone: 402-670-2402

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