Townhall

by Bob Barr

The country is now four costly COVID stimulus packages deep. By now there is ample evidence that “stimulus” money is fleeting and can only take us so far. What the country really needs from Congress are not repetitive shots in the arm, but substantive legislative reforms to help our economy re-open and stay open. Unfortunately, this requires hard work by both Houses, at a time when it is far easier to just keep piling hundreds of billions of dollars onto the already unimaginably huge national debt.

To be sure, unemployed citizens and small business owners struggling because of government-mandated shutdowns deserve monetary relief, but direct payments are at best a stop gap measure. Also, such funding represents only a fraction of overall spending included in the most recent omnibus bill. This massive spending bill once again fails to include any reforms to address the myriad underlying conditions related to the pandemic — most importantly, COVID-related liability reform.

With the country still a long way away from the level of vaccination required even to hope to return to pre-COVID normalcy, it is a virtual certainty that Congress will find itself in this same predicament a few months from now, as its members continue to delay passing COVID-related liability reforms that stymie both short- and long-term economic recovery.

The Washington Post recently highlighted a wave of COVID-related lawsuits already being filed in courthouses across the country, by trial lawyers eager to target business owners, many of whom do not have the means to defend themselves vigorously. Already, ads are popping up on TV, radio, and online encouraging the public to get rich quick by signing up for frivolous lawsuits.

It truly is sad to now see lawyers trying to blame business owners, many of whom are only doing their best to follow all public health guidelines for limiting the “spread” of the virus, even as they try and serve their customers’ needs.

Sadly, some businesses will be forced to exhaust every penny defending themselves from these bogus lawsuits, leaving them once again with their hands out like Oliver Twist, asking Washington for more. Others, despite receiving relief funds, will remain closed for fear the lawsuit onslaught will transform a temporary closure into a permanent one.

As bad as COVID has been for small business owners, trial lawyers have found a way to make it even worse.

This is why it is so important for Congress to pass at least a limited liability shield as soon as possible, to ensure that only those businesses openly engaging in poor, irresponsible behavior can be sued. While many members of Congress understand this need, a vocal minority dependent on the trial bar’s campaign contributions continues to ignore the problem and its dire ramifications.

Thankfully, there is hope for reform. As noted in a report last May in The Hill, some moderate Democrat senators remain open to considering liability protection for businesses. Also, the fact that there will be runoff elections for both of Georgia’s Senate seats on January 5th provides a real opportunity to place COVID liability front and center when the 117th Congress convenes early next month.

Speaking of Georgia, the Peach State is a textbook example of the lack of effectiveness in Congress’ current relief strategy. Although already receiving more than 150,000 federal COVID-relief loans, a recent study reveals that nearly 40 percent of the state’s restaurants may not last another six months under current conditions. Many other small businesses are in the same sinking boat.

For those familiar with Georgia’s legal system, the reason for this is obvious. Georgia consistently places in the top-10 for states with the worst litigation environments. Just weeks ago, the American Tort Reform Association named Georgia sixth on its list of “Judicial Hellholes.” Bad at any time, the current pandemic has only exacerbated the costly and often frivolous legal troubles small businesses typically face. This “perfect storm” for COVID lawsuits can, and will, bleed many struggling Georgia businesses of whatever resources they hope to replenish with the stimulus.

This is why it is critical that all four candidates on the Georgia runoff ballot be pressed to support COVID liability reform if elected. Working actively to implement liability reform will help ensure that businesses not only in Georgia but across the country will once again will be able to put the “open for business” sign — and keep it there.

Bob Barr represented Georgia’s 7th District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003 and was the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia from 1986 to 1990.   He served as an official with the CIA during the 1970s.