A major goal of small businesses as they gradually reopen in Massachusetts is to ensure the safety of customers and workers. We see those efforts in the new plastic barriers at checkout counters, tables spaced six feet apart at restaurants, sanitizer stations for customers, and when people are asked to kindly wait in their car before getting a haircut. Even if business owners follow every state-issued guideline, they are worried about a new financial threat just as they get back on their feet — opportunistic lawyers seeking easy cash by filing unjustified lawsuits.
A single lawsuit can wipe out a small business even if the owner hasn’t done anything wrong because the cost of putting up a defense is more than most small businesses can afford. So those business owners are forced to settle simply to remain in business. During the economic recovery, trial lawyers have begun to run ads seeking plaintiffs who claim to have contracted the virus at a business even if there is no way to prove or disprove it. What a perfect opportunity for unscrupulous actors in the legal system to exploit the current health and economic crisis by preying on small businesses.
COVID-19 is an extremely infectious disease that is easily transmitted to others and tracing its origin isn’t easy. Someone may believe they caught the coronavirus at a business, but it might have been when they rode public transportation, lined up to vote or joined others at a group gathering. The state of Massachusetts’ directives for social distancing and face coverings are intended to lower risk, but they are no guarantee.
If a business owner does all they can in good faith to follow the required safety procedures, the state or federal government should grant them protection from liability. But that should absolutely not apply in cases where a business owner knowingly neglected to develop a reasonable plan to reduce the risk of exposure to COVID-19 or failed to implement state-mandated guidance and protocols. Lawsuits claiming exposure to COVID-19 should be limited to those who experience a serious illness that results in hospitalization. And fines should be imposed on lawyers who file multiple COVID-19 lawsuits wasting the time and resources of business owners and the state courts.
Early in the pandemic Governor Charlie Baker signed an executive order granting legal immunity to health professionals who were fighting the disease if they were sued while acting in good faith. That helped those on the front lines continue to save lives. Now small businesses are struggling to overcome the resulting economic crisis caused by COVID-19 and they too need protection. After massive losses in state revenue and a record number of people on unemployment, if small businesses can survive and ultimately prosper, they will be the engine that drives Massachusetts’ economic recovery.
Christopher Carlozzi is state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, which advocates on behalf of thousands of small businesses in Massachusetts.