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House Judiciary Committee Rejects Series Of Amendments To COVID Liability Bill, Advances Measure To Floor

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West Virginia Legislative Photography
Del. Chad Lovejoy, D-Cabell, looks through a bill in a meeting of the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021.

After more than an hour of debate, the West Virginia House of Delegates Judiciary Committee advanced a bill that would provide immunity from civil liability for people, businesses and health care providers as it pertains to the coronavirus pandemic.

During Tuesday’s committee meeting, lawmakers rejected a series of amendments to Senate Bill 277 that sought to dampen the wide effect of the bill. The bill would completely eliminate liability related to the coronavirus and offer a defense on claims being brought forth related to infections, treatment or death.

Del. Chad Lovejoy, D-Cabell, first offered an amendment that would have allowed claims against persons or entities that act “with actual malice, or a conscious, reckless and outrageous indifference to the health, safety and welfare of others.”

Lovejoy argued that he understands giving immunity to those who might be negligent, but not those who intentionally harm others. The amendment was similar to a proposed change that was offered last week by Sen. Richard Lindsay, D-Kanawha, but was ultimately rejected.

“To go beyond that and to immunize intentional harm or outrageous indifference, to the health of others, I think is bad policy,” Lovejoy said.

In the end, Lovejoy’s first amendment failed.

A second amendment brought forth by Lovejoy would have limited the definition in the bill of “impacted care” so that it would only apply to treatment related to the coronavirus and not other treatments that were delayed as a result of the pandemic. The effort was also rejected.

Lovejoy also offered an amendment that would have expired the the bill. Like his first amendment, it also echoed a change offered by Lindsay in the Senate — calling for immunity from claims to end when the state of emergency related to the coronavirus is rescinded.

Del. Steve Westfall, R-Jackson, spoke against putting an expiration date on Senate Bill 277.

“The governor called the state emergency. He's gonna end it someday,” Westfall said. “But I'm not sure this pandemic’s ever gonna end. I think it's gonna be a new normal.”

And like Lindsay’s similar amendment in the Senate, Lovejoy’s third amendment also failed.

Lawmakers also rejected four amendments from House Judiciary Vice Chair Tom Fast, R-Fayette, that would have narrowed the scope of immunity offered in various provisions throughout the measure.

Del. Joey Garcia, D-Marion, offered an amendment that would have created a death benefit of up to $10,000 to be used for funeral expenses for anyone who dies as a result of an intentional act and has no claim otherwise under the bill.

Garcia’s amendment also failed.

As the committee discussed the full bill, Lovejoy made mention of two letters sent to committee members that argued against the passage of Senate Bill 277 — one from the AARP and another from the ombudsman of long-term care facilities through the West Virginia Bureau of Senior Services.

The two letters argue the measure does little to protect the state’s elderly population from those who might intentionally inflict harm. Lovejoy said the bill fails to balance competing interests between protecting businesses and residents in the midst of the pandemic.

“That's just not right. That's not the way the law was meant to be,” Lovejoy said. “And so, because we fail to balance those competing interests of protecting our businesses — and I'm all for it — but also protecting our residents, which we do not have in this bill. I have to speak against it.”

With the Republican majority voting to advance the measure to the floor, Senate Bill 277 — unchanged from its passage in the upper chamber — now heads to the full House for consideration.


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