Protect Doctors, Nursing Homes and Small Businesses From Trial Lawyers | Opinion

While Times Square is known for its distinctively bright lights, trial lawyer John Houghtaling recently shut them down for a brief COVID-19 publicity stunt. The dark-set message that followed on the billboard screens urged insurance companies and the federal government to "do the right thing" during this pandemic. However, if there's anyone who needs a lesson on doing the right thing today, it's the trial bar itself.

Houghtaling's mission is to pressure the government into bailing out members of a business coalition that did not purchase pandemic coverage. This list includes celebrity TV chefs, who have been particularly vocal about the bailout plans despite being more than able to afford the policies themselves. At a time when many on Main Street have yet to receive relief checks, most Americans wouldn't describe subsidizing the wealthy as "doing the right thing." They'd categorize the move as just another government wealth transfer to the well-to-do.

Sadly, Houghtaling's theatrics were symbolic of a far more costly and dangerous threat sprawling across America—a lawsuit pandemic that could force thousands of facilities and businesses to shut their lights off permanently. Countless establishments have expressed anxiety over the impending legal onslaught. However, none are more fearful or susceptible than the doctors and nurses working to combat COVID-19 and keep the country healthy and safe.

In hospitals across the 50 states, medical supply and equipment shortages continue to force doctors and nurses to make tough clinical decisions. At the same time, substantial staff shortages have caused many medical professionals to begin performing unfamiliar jobs in unfamiliar facilities. This is particularly true in senior care facilities, which faced government orders to accept COVID-19-positive patients despite the general vulnerability of their existing residents. Most of these health providers are doing the best they can with what they have and deserve everyone's confidence and respect. Instead, they find themselves the subjects of numerous trial lawyer lawsuit campaigns, which can quickly exacerbate the nation's shortage of health care professionals.

We're not talking about corporations that ignore the welfare of their customers and employees; we're talking about front-line heroes who, due to constraints on personnel and resources, must now focus on the interests of the entire population rather than the desires of every patient. We're talking about small businesses that will face suits despite following all health and safety guidelines because of a customer who sneezes or leaves behind a face mask. These good-faith actors merit legal protections, not legal bankruptcy.

Doctor with stethoscope
Doctor with stethoscope HANNAH MCKAY/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Democratic and Republican governors in over 20 states understand as much, and have already crafted targeted limited liability shields to protect their most vulnerable residents from the plaintiff bar's frivolous COVID-19 suits. These state models—which provide targeted protections, not blanket immunity—represent a great start, and the federal government should use them as a springboard to set a nationwide standard for liability that safeguards those who haven't engaged in negligence.

This isn't the first time a crisis has required Congress to step in to tame the reach of the trial lawyers. In the wake of 9/11, Congress extended a limited liability shield to security professionals and counter-terrorism technology manufacturers that allowed them to continue working and innovating to keep the country safe. In response to declared public health emergencies in 2005, Congress moved to implement protections for vaccine manufacturers and shield their life-saving clinical trials and testing from disruptive interference from the trial bar.

Today's decision-makers should lean on these legislative precedents to guide their response to the current pandemic—developing protections for the nation's front-line workers while also safeguarding other businesses from the ravages of frivolous litigation.

Thankfully, Congress has already begun talks to start the process. But with partisanship at an all-time high, one can only hope that the body will be able to agree on a proposal before the lights in hospitals and doctor offices begin to shut for a period that lasts far longer than the recent theatrics in Times Square.

Michael J. Pappas is a former Republican U.S. congressman from New Jersey.

The views expressed in the article are the writer's own.

Protect Doctors, Nursing Homes and Small Businesses From Trial Lawyers | Opinion | Opinion