FLORIDA — Republican legislation to limit COVID-related lawsuits brought by employees cleared a key Florida House committee Wednesday over the objections of Democrats, who called it an unconstitutional infringement on workers' rights.

What You Need To Know

  •  Over the objections of Democrats, Republican legislation to limity COVID-related lawsuits against businesses passed a key committee

  •  COVID-19 legal immunity has been listed as a top Republican priority for the 2021 legislative session

  • Detractors of the legislation argue that COVID-related lawsuits are not currently a problem in need of solving

COVID-19 legal immunity is a top priority for the legislature's Republican leaders and is expected to pass early in the 2021 legislative session, which begins next month. The state's business lobby has couched the initiative as critical to the recovery of an economy largely dependent on the tourism and hospitality sector, which has seen steep job losses caused by the pandemic.

"If they're going to go back to work, then they have to have a place to go to work," said the committee's chairman, Rep. Tom Leek (R-Ormond Beach). "And if they're going to have a place to go to work, then you're going to have to provide the employers some reasonable safeguards that they're not going to get hit with an onslaught of litigation."

Under the measure, HB 7, employers that have made a "good faith effort" to follow government guidance on preventing the spread of COVID-19 would be largely immune from civil litigation brought by employees who contend they contracted the virus in the workplace. The proposed protections could also protect businesses from being sued for dismissing employees who refuse to work out of fear of contracting the virus.

While the legislation is tailored to address the current pandemic, however, it doesn't include a sunset date when it will no longer bar certain types of lawsuits. Democrats on the House panel suggested the measure is a convenient vehicle for Republicans to continue their more than two decade drive to curtail personal injury litigation.

Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith (D-Orlando), who represents a district hit particularly hard by the economic effects of the pandemic, told the panel he was unaware of any COVID-related lawsuits being filed.

"The idea that we absolutely must create this liability for businesses from the threat of lawsuits that doesn't exist is just absurd," he said.