The Ohio House of Representatives has passed legislation that aims to help employers who are struggling financially due to the coronavirus by granting them immunity from certain coronavirus litigation. However, thanks to the inclusion of a last second amendment, the legislation now exposes employers to runaway workers’ compensation costs.
The legislation, House Bill 606, was originally crafted to provide all businesses in Ohio with legal protections from lawsuits alleging someone was exposed to the coronavirus while at a business or through a company’s provision of services. These additional legal protections are a crucial part of re-opening Ohio’s economy because they enable businesses to focus on serving their customers without fear of litigation and they remove an incentive for businesses to remain closed for months to come.
The heightened legal standard included in HB 606 is also appropriate for coronavirus litigation. Without the legal protections afforded to employers in HB 606, trial attorneys will attempt to hold business owners accountable for a risk they cannot eliminate by threatening financially crippling lawsuits. HB 606 addresses this concern by requiring individuals to show a company’s reckless conduct caused their exposure to the coronavirus.
However, despite bi-partisan support for HB 606 from members of the Ohio House Civil Justice Committee, there was an amendment included on the House floor to create a presumption that COVID-19 is an occupational disease for certain classes of employees.
This amendment ignores the reality that the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation is already approving coronavirus claims for employees in numerous industries who have a greater risk of exposure to the virus than the general population due to their employment. The amendment also chips away at the goal of HB 606 because now employers face the potential of costly workers’ compensation claims that will raise their premiums in the future.
The Ohio Chamber of Commerce was disappointed the Ohio House took this action at the last moment because of the negative effect it will have on our member companies. With the amendment included in HB 606, the legislation trades civil litigation certainty for increased exposure to workers’ compensation costs. For Ohio businesses who are struggling to survive the coronavirus, the trade fails to help them since it greatly increases the chance the business will have to manage an expensive workers’ compensation claim. As HB 606 moves onto the Senate, the Chamber is committed to enacting a coronavirus immunity bill that recognizes employers cannot face the risk of either costly litigation or expensive workers’ compensation claims if Ohio’s economy is to truly rebound following the pandemic.