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Senate passes COVID lawsuit immunity amid debate

Sen. Mark Messmer, R-Jasper, told his fellow Senators Thursday that businesses need protection from COVID-19 lawsuits to ensure they can continue to serve their communities and protect jobs. 

“This bill does carefully balance the rights of employees to a safe workplace and protecting employers large and small from being put out of business by going broke trying to defend a civil suit,” Messmer said. 

His bill, Senate Bill 1, has been named a priority by Senate Republicans and Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb. And according to Messmer, it’s a conversation that started well before the session began Jan. 4, going back to the governor’s first stay-at-home order last spring. The bill is meant to protect business owners, volunteer groups, religious organizations, education institutions, and more from unfair allegations, Messmer said. 

Senate Bill 1 passed with a 40-8 vote Thursday. Another version of the measure, House Bill 1002, is quickly progressing through the Indiana House and will be up for final review early next week. 

Statehouse Democrats, who are in the super-minority in both chambers, however, have repeatedly questioned whether the bills could open a Pandora’s box, leading to the unintended consequence of protecting bad actors who’ve chosen to not keep their employees and visitors safe. 

Healthcare providers like nursing homes are also part of the discussion. Their inclusion is prompting new questions about whether the bills are so vague that they could shield nursing homes from being held accountable for abuse and neglect residents suffered during the pandemic, when many facilities restricted visitation from loved ones. 

After a lengthy debate about this issue earlier this week, Sen. Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, again asked Senators to consider this possibility before Thursday’s vote. He also suggested there’s not enough evidence to assume a storm of lawsuits is on the way for businesses to take the kind of actions proposed by the bill. 

“Is this a solution in search of a problem?” Lanane asked. 

A similar debate unfolded in the House, with Rep. Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis, proposing a change to the bill to make clear how cases of deaths in nursing homes would receive special scrutiny and not be able to claim liability immunity. 

“Send a message to this industry and to the public that we care about the over 2,000 deaths in our nursing homes,” DeLaney asked of his colleagues. 

The amendment failed in a 28-65 vote, with a handful of lawmakers abstaining. Bill author Rep. Jerry Torr, R-Carmel, argued the bill doesn’t prevent anyone from suing a nursing home if they believe there’s a genuine malpractice or abuse case. 

“It does absolutely no such thing,” Torr said. “Nobody’s going to be locked out of the courthouse because of this.”

More updates from the Statehouse as the third week of the 2021 legislative session comes to a close: 

  • The Senate is moving forward with the controversial Senate Bill 389, which could deregulate how wetlands are protected across the state. Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes, proposed an amendment to stop the bill from progressing and take the issue up in a summer study committee, but the amendment was rejected. Tallian argued the bill is “a speeding freight train” that needs further discussion. 

Erica Irish is the 2021 Russell Pulliam student editor for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.