By Robert Yeakel, NGA Director of Government Relations
Independent grocery has had to face a whole new world when it comes to retail in the age of the coronavirus. Like many industries deemed essential businesses, grocery had to overcome the challenges of staying open while simultaneously protecting customers, employees, and the stores themselves from the threat of an invisible virus. But as the global health crisis continues, a new existential threat has begun to rear its ugly head. Businesses and organizations – from food retail to healthcare, churches and schools to public transportation – are now facing the additional burden of unfounded civil lawsuits.
Since March 2020, over 3,500 COVID-19 complaints have been filed throughout the United States. With new claims appearing daily, it is imperative that the federal government take action to protect businesses who have complied with public health and safety protocols from these predatory lawsuits. Bad actors should not be protected, however, but liability protections should be provided to businesses who have responsibly complied with federal, state, and local public health and safety guidelines.
For months, NGA has been working with a coalition of retail and essential business groups to advocate for liability protections for grocers. We’ve helped our members get Op-Eds and Letters to the Editor placed in local press outlets and coordinated meetings between our members and key elected officials. Since April, NGA members have also sent over 850 letters to their Congressional representatives urging COVID-19 liability protections for grocers. These actions have not only raised the level of awareness on this issue but have made it a primary concern for many lawmakers.
With the grassroots support and actions taken by NGA, the call for liability protections has reached a fever pitch. In May, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) remarked that any future COVID-19 relief or aid bill must include a “liability shield” for businesses. NGA has also welcomed the introduction of legislation from both Republicans and Democrats. Earlier this month, Representatives Garrett Graves (R-LA) and Henry Cuellar (D-TX) authored H.R. 7528, the Get America Back to Work Act. This bipartisan bill would provide a safe harbor from COVID-19 liability claims to businesses. Similarly, Senate Republicans recently introduced principles for their Safe to Work Act which would also shield businesses from frivolous lawsuits and raise the bar for plaintiffs who seek to prove that businesses acted in a willfully and grossly negligent way. Provisions in both proposals also would create an exclusive federal cause of action and give defendants the right to remove any case to federal court.
With negotiations ongoing as to the next phase of federal coronavirus relief, liability protections are a key component for Republicans. However, the issue is not settled. To further the effort to make sure that independent grocers are protected from unfounded COVID-19 lawsuits, today NGA and over 1,000 of its members sent a letter to Congressional leadership asking that liability protections be included in forthcoming federal coronavirus aid and relief packages. NGA members can also continue to reach out to their members of Congress to make it clear that liability protections are a necessity. If you have not taken action yet, make sure you do as soon as possible.
The COVID-19 health crisis has tested our country’s food supply chain, but grocers continue to work night and day to make sure customers are served. Liability protections from unwarranted COVID-19 lawsuits will allow independent grocers to focus on the needs of their communities and employees and make sure that we come out of this pandemic better prepared for the future.