Mitch McConnell's new coronavirus plan: Make sure you can't sue a company that gets you sick
But providing businesses with broad legal immunity reduces any incentive for them to provide protective equipment to employees or safe spaces to customers.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., announced Monday that he is willing to work with Democrats to pass another COVID-19 relief bill when his institution finally returns from an inexcusably long recess in May. But seasoned liberal observers would know that such announcements from him should offer as much apprehension as hope — and McConnell did not go against type.
His top priority isn’t addressing the myriad economic hardships facing most Americans, who have seen jobs evaporate, salaries cut, small businesses suffer, retirement accounts dwindle and may yet still take ill or die of the disease the government seemingly has no comprehensive plan to fight, but rather addressing what he called the “the lawsuit pandemic” by providing legal immunity to companies for lawsuits related to their actions during the pandemic.
Denying people — or their immediate loved ones — their day in court for pandemic-related deaths caused by negligence or other misconduct is a terrible idea. And it indicates that the differences between Republican and Democratic priorities couldn’t be more stark. Congressional Democrats are fighting for aid that will preserve essential services to ordinary people and reduce the economic misery inflicted by necessary stay-at-home orders, while Republicans are laser-focused on preventing powerful actors from being held accountable.
The American tort system is far from perfect, but it provides critical remedies to ordinary people who are otherwise at the mercy of more powerful actors. To immunize actors from lawsuits during a raging pandemic would be not merely unwise but also perverse: Decisions made by employers about whether and how to operate with a deadly and highly communicable virus circulating have potentially life-and-death consequences for employees and customers.
Providing them with legal immunity reduces their incentives to provide appropriate protective equipment to employees and provide safe environments to workers and customers. A world in which employers do not have to worry about being held accountable would be one with more crises like the current wave of COVID-19 infections at meat-packing plants.
The priority that McConnell is putting on legal immunity for companies also underscores how reckless and irresponsible premature Republican calls to “open up” the economy are. Trying to get closer to the pre-pandemic “normal” before the curve of new cases is truly flattened and no vaccine or even proven treatment exists carries massive risks to the public health. That McConnell thinks that companies that “help” to open up the economy face a high risk of being sued shows that he is aware of what a huge gamble is being made with the lives of working Americans.
McConnell’s demand for immunity is also part of a long-term bait-and-switch on the part of the American right. On the one hand, conservatives regularly call for the deregulation of business, and the Trump administration has made it a top priority to free corporations from public oversight. (Remarkably, while it wasted months without making meaningful efforts to secure protective equipment or increase testing capacity, the Trump administration has taken advantage of the pandemic to ram through new rules making it easier for companies to pollute the air.) And, in the libertarian theory on which such demands for deregulation ideologically rely, the tort system is a better institutional locus for remedies for corporate misconduct.
But then comes the switch: Republicans actively work to limit plaintiffs’ access to the courts to sue at all.