Effort to make COVID-related lawsuits easier dies in legislature

Photo of Ken Dixon

The General Assembly Judiciary Committee’s 3 o’clock deadline came and went Friday afternoon without action on two pieces of coronavirus legislation that would have made it easier to sue hospitals and nursing homes for lapses in public health protocols, and harder to file lawsuits against other entities for similar shortcomings.

Two months from the end of the legislative session on June 9, the committee’s inaction means that prospective plaintiffs will have to depend on so-called common law rights to pursue - and defend - lawsuits. Both bills are unlikely to be revived this session.

Rep. Steve Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said after the meeting that there seemed to be little need for either bill because 13 months after the state’s first COVID case, there is no noticeable number of liability cases emerging.

“There are a lot of well-meaning bills that just run out of time in the legislative process,” Stafstrom said, noting that neither of the bills resulted in much public-hearing testimony. “Some of them really didn’t rise to the level of priority bill. There has really not been a wave of liability lawsuits filed in Connecticut, so there wasn’t an urgency in passing these bills.”

One bill was aimed at making it easier to sue hospitals and nursing homes, which Gov. Ned Lamont protected from liability lawsuits under executive orders, which were lifted on March 1.

The other bill, supported by Republicans including Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, ranking member of the committee, would have given liability protections to companies, non-profit agencies and other entities including condominium complexes that maintained good-faith efforts to protect people from COVID.

“There was not a lot of love for either of those bills,” Fishbein said after the Judiciary Committee finished its legislative initiatives for the session. He said the Republican bill would have forced claimants to succeed in proving through expert testimony that someone’s COVID infection was directly related to exposure at a particular location.

Fishbein said that while he could possibly revive the bill in the amendment process on the floor of the House, and force a parliamentary question on whether it was appropriate, he doesn’t intend to pursue such action.

“Both bills could possibly create more confusion and could be seen as redundant of existing common-law protections,” Stafstrom said. “I don’t know if they were necessary to take up this legislative session.”

While the committee finished its historic virtual public hearings and meetings on its own bills, more meetings are ahead, as other pieces of legislation that require scrutiny of the law-writing panel get referred to the panel.

Earlier in the day, Lamont, speaking during an unrelated event in Barkhamsted, said he believes that current law has adequate protections for both plaintiffs and defendants. “I think right now we have a pretty good balance there, is my instinct,” Lamont said.

“For folks who pick up COVID and they want to sue the employer or (file for) workers’ comp(ensation), I think a lot of that may be figured out by vaccinations,” Lamont said. “I mean if I don’t want to get vaccinated and I pick up an infection somewhere, who’s responsible? I would like to think we’re going to make vaccinations widely available to everybody that wants it, and they’re accountable. I’d like to think that our restaurants and our bars and our stores have done this very carefully. They knew what the rules of the road are when it comes to opening up your store safely. I think that’s the key requirement we need to keep people safe.”

kdixon@ctpost.com Twitter: @KenDixonCT