Image shows a man unloading an applicance from a delivery truck.
Bridgman's Furniture in Poteau, Okla., saw strong appliance sales during the coronavirus crisis.

Ask state leaders for liability protection

The Home Furnishings Association is pressing Congress for liability protection. Republicans agree, Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.) and Rep. Darin LaHood (R-Ill.) told HFA’s Government Relations Action Team in recent Zoom meetings.

[HFA asks for liability protection as stores reopen]

But Senate leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has indicated he’s in no hurry to pass more legislation addressing COVID-19 recovery measures.

That’s despite the fact that, in Young’s words, “We’re already seeing in the news that lawyers are starting to fire up their engines on this one.”

Thousands of lawsuits filed already

They’re doing more than that. From Jan. 30 through June 12, 2,700 coronavirus-related complaints were filed in state and federal courts, according to law firm Hunton Andrews Kurth. The top states are New York, California, Florida, Texas, Illinois and Pennsylvania.

Even if Congress acts immediately, it won’t erase any of those actions.

So, while HFA still urges Congress to address liability protection, it also is asking states for help.

A handful of states already have enacted protections for businesses against unwarranted claims related to COVID-19. Oklahoma, Wyoming and Utah were the first.

Oklahoma takes early action to help

“We haven’t had a big problem yet,” said Randy Bridgman of Bridgman’s Furniture, a 124-year-old family business in Poteau, Okla. Indeed, Hunton Andrews Kurth counted just two dozen complaints filed in Oklahoma.

Bridgman, whose store never closed while meeting strong customer demand for appliances, mattresses and recliners, has taken steps to make sure customers and employees are safe. But he said he’s glad Oklahoma legislators eased potential concerns about liability if someone should file a complaint.

Liability protection doesn’t cover or excuse negligence. The Oklahoma law says that a person conducting business in the state can’t be held liable in a civil action claiming an injury from exposure to COVID-19 while that person was in compliance with federal or state regulations, executive orders or guidance.

Furniture stores can operate safely

For furniture retailers, maintaining a safe environment is possible with proper vigilance and attention to detail. Showrooms are spacious, allowing for easy social distancing. Most are rarely, if ever, crowded. They can be cleaned frequently. Employees can wear face masks.

[Tell leaders you can reopen your store safely]

Yet, any business can be subject to claims that transmission of the COVID-19 virus occurred on its premises – whether there’s any proof or not. And it can be expensive to defend against those claims.

At a time when retail sales in many categories, including furniture, are down, money to fend off dubious or unwarranted legal actions is not in the budget.

Writing for CalMatters, Civil Justice Association of California President and CEO Kyla Christoffersen Powell addressed the importance of liability protection to an economic comeback:

Contact your state representatives

“California has been proactive during this pandemic, providing safety nets to the vulnerable and establishing health infrastructure to ensure we are prepared – which is why it’s time that we step up on this issue,” she wrote. “Ensuring liability protections are in place now as stay at home orders lift is crucial, because this marks the beginning of an economic recovery period.

“Our businesses and the economy cannot sustain further damage. More than ever, California needs businesses, large and small, to continue to operate, produce and employ – not fight frivolous lawsuits.”

HFA members should ask their representatives and senators in Washington to pass federal liability protection. But they may see a quicker response if they make the same case to their state legislators.

They can find contact information here.

[HFA COVID-19 Recovery Resources]

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