Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed three executive orders Monday to protect businesses and employees from lawsuits over COVID-19 exposure and to ensure that employees who contract the virus at work receive workers’ compensation.
Hutchinson said the effort was one led by the Legislature, which decided executive orders were a better alternative to voting on bills in a special session amid the ongoing pandemic.
“For the time being, we feel like this is an adequate remedy to address many of the concerns and to send the message to our businesses and employees that we appreciate them getting back to business, providing the necessary services to our citizens,” Arkansas Speaker of the House Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, said during the governor’s daily coronavirus briefing. “And, if they are making the right effort, if they’re following those guidelines that are out there, the fear of litigation should be minimized.”
Senate President Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, added that the orders do not grant “blanket immunity for bad actors.”
“The purpose of this legislation is to allow the outliers to still be dealt with, but also to give some certainty to the people who are doing their best to try to survive in these challenging times,” he said. “We’re talking about barber shops and gyms and hairdressers and nail salons, people who have one or two or three employees who one frivolous lawsuit when they were doing their best to comply could be the final nail in their coffin.”
One executive order authorizes health care workers and providers to use “crisis standards” to treat COVID-19 patients and makes providers immune from civil liability. That immunity does not apply to “willful, reckless or intentional misconduct.”
Another executive order makes all businesses and employees immune from civil liability related to COVID-19 exposure. That immunity also doesn’t apply to willful, reckless or intentional misconduct.
It also includes the presumption that actions are not willful or reckless if business owners substantially comply with public health directives.
“I hope that this serves as an incentive for good behavior,” Hutchinson said.
The third executive order designates COVID-19 as an occupational disease and makes the virus an exception to a prohibition on compensation for “ordinary diseases of life.” There must still be a causal connection between employment and disease.
The governor acknowledged that proving a causal connection could be a challenge, but he said this order still “opens the door” because employees would not have been able to receive workers’ compensation for contracting COVID-19 at work beforehand.
The orders are effective while the governor’s public health emergency declaration is in effect.
Opponents called orders unnecessary, given the lack of lawsuits so far and that businesses can already use their compliance with virus safety rules as a defense.
“I think that taking away someone’s right to be compensated when they’re hurt by a negligent business deprives them of access to justice and it removes an incentive for businesses to act in the public interest," Democratic Rep. Andrew Collins said.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)