Op-Ed: Wolf's liability protections veto leaves industries in the cold


Small businesses, nonprofits, day care centers and the education and medical communities recently received more troubling news in this year of financial hardship when Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed critical liability protections on the last day of the 2019-20 legislative session — effectively leaving these industries out in the cold as they struggle to overcome the myriad of challenges brought forth by the COVID-19 pandemic.

This health care crisis has required an all-hands-on-deck effort. Businesses throughout the commonwealth have made innumerable sacrifices — from working on the front lines to treat patients with the virus; to ensuring that our critical supply chains remained intact; to adapting their operations in order to manufacture the personal protective equipment that medical workers need.

At the same time, as the state’s economy gradually reopened, these dedicated and hardworking professionals have committed tremendous resources, time and energy in order to adhere to state and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and operate in a safe manner.

Yet, despite doing everything that has been asked and required of them, employers continue to face an ever-growing avalanche of litigation. As we have heard from so many of our members, concerns that they’ll be faced with an unwarranted lawsuit that threatens to shut their doors for good places a constant dark cloud over employers who are already facing numerous financial hurdles working to operate during this pandemic.

The governor’s action on this issue falls far short of what is necessary and far short of what many other states have done, making Pennsylvania more uncompetitive in the process.

That’s why we strongly supported House Bill 1737, which would have provided temporary and targeted safe harbor protections to those following public health guidelines in good faith. And while the governor has said otherwise, the truth of the matter is, this legislation was narrow in scope and would have incentivized best practices by still holding bad actors accountable.

There’s a reason why this legislation was supported by 80 chambers of commerce from across the state and nearly 80 associations representing a wide range of constituencies — including advocates for children, day care centers, nonprofits, the United Way, the education and medical communities and small businesses. Because at the end of the day, this bill was about ensuring that the family-owned restaurant down the street, the small business owner in your neighborhood, the local nonprofit bringing much-needed resources to the community could continue the good work of keeping their communities afloat. It was about providing these varied industries with the certainty that targeted and temporary safe harbor protections can provide — letting them know that their efforts and adherence to safety guidelines aren’t being done in vain — while they work to bring our economy out of this difficult time.

Providing the safe harbor protections that will help businesses survive the pandemic is not a revolutionary idea. Across the nation, numerous states have gone far beyond what Pennsylvania has done in regard to COVID-19 liability protections, putting them in a much better position for economic recovery.

A recent poll from the Institute for Legal Reform found that 79% of Americans from across the political spectrum support liability protections for businesses that are operating in good faith by following state and federal health and safety guidelines.

As the PA Chamber stressed for months in fighting to get this bill enacted, providing for temporary liability reforms isn’t a partisan issue — and businesses that do not take the public’s health into account should be prosecuted to every extent of the law. These types of protections are broadly supported — and we had hoped that the breadth of organizations and industries supporting this issue would have impressed upon the governor how closely linked it is to their ability to withstand this pandemic era. Unfortunately, this wasn’t enough to sway Gov. Wolf.

Interestingly, the one organization that came out in support of the governor’s veto — the trial bar — is the one that stands to profit off opportunistic lawsuits amid the pandemic.

As we collectively work to fight COVID-19 and try to sustain our economy, we are disappointed the governor chose to veto this commonsense and targeted proposal.