Commentary: Manufacturers Need Protections from Costly, Frivolous Lawsuits

By Eric Burkland and Linda Kelly
We’re all in this together. That has been the refrain of Ohioans since the COVID-19 pandemic began. 

Health care professionals have worked tirelessly to save lives, while manufacturing employees have stepped up to produce the personal protective equipment and other supplies these heroic individuals require to fight the virus. 

After all the hard work, expense and sacrifice by our health care providers and manufacturing community, we cannot permit opportunistic actors to exploit a national emergency to make a profit. This includes those who would abuse our legal system for their own ends.

Right now, manufacturers that have been doing the right thing all along to protect their employees and produce needed goods are being targeted by trial lawyers. COVID-19-related lawsuits nationwide number in the thousands, including hundreds of complaints brought by employees against their employers. 

Without action by leaders in Washington – including Ohio’s elected representatives – and at the Statehouse in Columbus, frivolous litigation could undermine our manufacturing base and disrupt the production of food, medicine and other essentials.

Extending legal protections to manufacturers and other critical businesses would provide companies the certainty that their good-faith efforts to make the products Americans need will not be met by endless, costly lawsuits.

To keep employees safe, Ohio’s manufacturers have studied the science, heeded government guidance, and invested heavily throughout their operations. Across thousands of facilities, manufacturers have implemented prescribed standards on social distancing, sanitizing, face coverings and other practices to fight the spread of the virus.

Linda Kelly
Eric Burkland

But knowledge of COVID-19 is still evolving. Even with every precaution currently in place, the virus may spread in ways we do not yet fully understand. The changing recommendations from government agencies open the door to lawsuits because there are no clear legal standards that govern when a company is or is not responsible for a COVID-19-related claim.

Any potential settlement payout from a meritless lawsuit makes it harder for manufacturers to meet payroll. Unfounded legal action costs jobs and prolongs economic recovery – damage that American businesses cannot sustain. 

Proposed COVID-19 liability limitations, at both the state and federal levels, would not grant protection to intentionally reckless actions by businesses. No reasonable policy would shield bad actors or undo vital worker protections. What we need are protections for the vast majority of businesses that have done and continue to do the right thing. 

Federal lawmakers are urged to consult the National Association of Manufacturers’ roadmap for liability reform. The recommendations it contains are 100% limited to the COVID-19 pandemic. This plan seeks to, among other things, extend good Samaritan protections and set clear expectations for good actors, as well as draw a clear line for unacceptable conduct that would rightly subject a company to legal liability. 

In Ohio, businesses are waiting on state lawmakers to give final approval to legislation that would help protect businesses from COVID-related lawsuits. The Ohio Senate recently passed its liability bill (Substitute House Bill 606), but the Ohio House of Representatives adjourned before taking up the legislation. Thousands of Ohio manufacturers are counting on timely action by our state representatives.

As the nation faces an unprecedented public health challenge and record unemployment, it makes sense to give manufacturers the legal protections necessary to ensure a stable supply of products that allow our fight against COVID-19 to continue. 

Just as important, manufacturers need the assurance that when they play by the rules and do everything possible to protect their employees and restore our economy, they have support from our policymakers in the form of targeted protections from senseless, unchecked litigation.

It’s time to work together and get this done for our manufacturing community. We urge federal lawmakers and Ohio lawmakers to pass sensible liability protections now.  

Eric Burkland is president of The Ohio Manufacturers’ Association in Columbus, Ohio. Linda Kelly is senior vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary of the National Association of Manufacturers in Washington, D.C. 

Source: The Ohio Manufacturers’ Association

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.