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Families say bill to limit COVID-19 lawsuits would give immunity to nursing homes

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Gallatin nursing home
Posted at 9:33 PM, Jun 17, 2020
and last updated 2021-01-29 22:53:54-05

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Tennessee lawmakers are close to approving legislation that would significantly limit Coronavirus-related lawsuits. Business groups say it will give them the protection they need to move forward, but families say it will make it nearly impossible to hold nursing homes accountable.

Jamie Vinson has been outspoken since the beginning about how the Gallatin Center for Rehabilitation and Healing handled the COVID-19 outbreak in its facility.

"The whole thing was mishandled from the get-go," Vinson said.

Her mother, 61-year-old Sherry Lynn Woodall, was one of 99 residents at the facility who got sick.

"It was pure negligence. It could’ve been avoided. I mean, not every other place is breaking out in these massive numbers like that," Vinson said.

But, under proposed legislation being pushed by the business community, nursing homes and other businesses would have COVID-19 "liability protection." In other words, it would be difficult to sue them for, according to the bill, "any sort of illness, injury or death from the Coronavirus."

The Tennessee Recovery and Safe Harbor Act, as it is known, says lawsuits would only be allowed in cases where there is "gross negligence" or "willful misconduct," raising the legal standard higher than is required in typical civil lawsuits.

"This legislation is absolutely unnecessary," Rep. John Ray Clemmons said during a nearly hour-long debate in the House Tuesday night. The Nashville Democrat was the only one who spoke out against the measure.

"There is no reason to create a higher burden of proof or create a requirement for gross negligence in a tort claim specifically because of one thing - that being the Coronavirus in this case," Clemmons shared.

But Republicans who support the bill, including sponsor Michael Curcio from Dickson, say Tennessee small businesses can't afford to be sued.

"Simply put, we are trying to protect innocent people from frivolous lawsuits well making sure that those who act negligently or willfully and put people at risk can still be prosecuted in the state of Tennessee," Curcio told fellow House members.

"Let it be their parent or their loved one and see how frivolous that is," Vinson said after hearing of Rep. Curcio's remarks.

Vinson and other families believe the bill will mean nursing homes will have zero accountability.

"So you have some kind of law that relieves them of any sort of responsibility due to COVID-19 and all that you’re basically saying is they can do what they want and there’s no consequences," Vinson said.

Martin Penny with the AARP of Tennessee agreed.

"Family members need to be able to access the courts, to be able to prevent the same things from happening in the future," he explained.

Penny said similar legislation is being pushed across the country. And he hopes Governor Lee will do as the Governor of Kansas did and refuse to sign the bill unless nursing homes are removed.

But Andy Spears with Tennessee Citizen Action said the bill does nothing to protect consumers and he believes the whole thing should be thrown out.

"What this bill says is you can be as irresponsible as you want and if people get COVID-19, too bad. It’s just too bad," Spears said.

The bill is not a done deal just yet. Under the House version, the lawsuit protection takes effect when the law passes. But the Senate version is retroactive, meaning businesses could not be sued for anything since early March when COVID-19 first appeared in Tennessee. The two sides now need to work out that difference