Liability Shield Is a Stumbling Block as Lawmakers Debate Relief

Opponents of the provision, including the American Association of Justice, also argue that the United States has not yet seen a profusion of coronavirus-related lawsuits, because the requirements for bringing such a suit are already high. Companies that act reasonably are protected from such lawsuits, and plaintiffs have to prove that they contracted the coronavirus at the place of business, not somewhere else, they say.

“I think the purpose of this bill, to inoculate employers from this pandemic of litigation, sounds like a solution in search of a problem,” said Paul Matiasic, a lawyer who is representing a widow, whose husband worked at a Safeway distribution center and died after contracting the virus, in a case against the grocery chain. “I think trial lawyers have been very discerning in terms of what cases they’ve brought.”

A widely cited tally kept by the law firm Hunton Andrews Kurth shows that through Aug. 3 there have been nearly 4,000 legal complaints related to Covid-19, including disputes over business interruption insurance and rent delinquencies. So far, just 75 of those have been related specifically to exposure to Covid-19 at work or wrongful death. However, that number fails to capture workers’ compensation insurance claims that employees are filing when they get sick, according to Torsten Kracht, a partner at the firm.

Mr. Bradley, the Chamber of Commerce vice president, said some trial lawyers had already started advertising about coronavirus-related lawsuits. “You’re not advertising to attract clients to sue someone unless you think there’s an opportunity to sue,” he said.

Ms. Duncan, of the trial lawyers group, said the protections in the Republican proposal — although confined to coronavirus cases — would be a victory for businesses seeking to take liability cases away from the states. “If they could get a sweeping corporate federal immunity language enacted, albeit using this specific crisis to do it, they will all of a sudden achieve this thing they wanted for 30 years,” she said.