Stanford, stop lobbying for immunity from COVID-19 lawsuits

Aug. 7, 2020, 5:31 p.m.

Crisis calls for compassion. But in the midst of the largest global economic collapse since World War II, Senate Republicans have introduced the HEALS Act, a bill that would protect wealthy corporations and generously-endowed universities from accountability, while exposing working-class families to the deadly effects of COVID-19.

The HEALS Act would make it practically impossible for individuals to sue businesses and universities. To start, this law would require plaintiffs to list every place and person they visited in the two weeks before infection and explain why each of those places and persons could not have caused their COVID-19 infection. Further, the bill would presume that a business or university cannot be sued if it has a written policy on COVID-19 mitigation, protecting parties who erect paper shields. What’s more, plaintiffs cannot simply present the testimony of their personal physician; they must also hire a medical expert, raising the cost of bringing a COVID-19 suit so high that many Americans (especially low-income Americans) will struggle to find a lawyer to bring their suit. These stark departures from the ordinary way the law handles such cases would make it almost impossible for plaintiffs to recover. 

The liability shield has support from powerful groups like the Chamber of Commerce and the Association of American Universities, a lobbying group with 65 member institutions, including Stanford. We are two current or former Stanford Law School students who do not want our colleagues and families exposed to COVID-19. We urge readers to contact their legislators and universities to oppose this bill.

Universities want a liability shield so that they can return students to campus and reverse their negative financial projections. But allowing schools to open free from liability will push COVID-19’s costs — literal and figurative — onto students, faculty and campus workers. In the classroom, disabled and non-white students will bear the brunt of these impacts, along with students’ immunocompromised relatives. Faculty will also face pronounced risks owing to their advanced age.

Unsafe reopenings will especially impact the cafeteria workers, custodians and groundskeepers who often go unconsidered in university decision-making. These workers, often disproportionately Black or Latinx, cannot conduct their business through Zoom, as students or professors can. Stanford’s support of the bill effectively endangers its most vulnerable employees.

Universities argue that they need these legal protections to offer in-person instruction in the fall, and corporations say their survival depends on Congress bestowing a liability shield. But our legal system already protects universities and corporations from lawsuits if they behave “reasonably”; under our current legal regime, defendants only face liability when they act negligently. As a result, this grant of immunity would only protect schools and businesses that unreasonably fail to protect students and employees so long as they meet the low bars presented above.

This legislation also purports to solve a problem that does not exist. The proponents of this bill claim to fear a tsunami of frivolous COVID-19 lawsuits, but this has failed to materialize. Nationwide, only 107 lawsuits have alleged that a worker or customer contracted COVID-19 at a place of business due to unsafe conditions. Small businesses face dire straits, but not due to an excess of tort liability. So while the bill makes numerous references to hypothetical COVID-19 suits “lining the pockets of trial lawyers,” the lack of such suits shows the bill’s true goal: protecting corporations and universities at all costs, at the expense of the health and safety of the workers who generate their profits and students who fund their endowments.

The effects of the HEALS Act passing would be predictable, and have already materialized in some places. Stanford Law School students have been told that, while classes will be conducted virtually, they are expected to return to campus (and pay campus rent), barring specific challenges. If universities can avoid the risk of liability, requirements to return to campus may become the norm, turning universities into COVID-19 breeding grounds while insulating boards of trustees from the cost of the harms their students or employees suffer. As of July 29, more than 6,300 COVID-19 cases have been linked to university campuses.

Millions of Americans need the kind of help that this bill gives to the world’s most-profitable corporations and best-endowed universities, and we must continue to fight for the people’s safety and health. The good news is that a majority of Americans agree that these liability shields are not a good idea: 64% of Americans oppose corporate immunity. But popular support does nothing if it is not backed by political action.

We ask two things of our readers. First, contact your representative in the U.S. House and Senate and express your opposition to the bill. Second, urge Stanford and its lobbying group to stop supporting this legislation, and to pledge not to require students to sign unfair liability waivers as a condition of returning to campus.

As members of the Stanford community, we must hold fast to our shared values. We must insist on an equitable response to the dangers of COVID-19. It is incumbent on us to call our representatives, call our alumni chairs and demand that our leadership do better for us all.

Sign this petition to tell Stanford to stop lobbying for corporate immunity:

Script to use when calling your representatives:

  1. Script, along with additional resources.

Resources on the HEALS Act:

  1. Sen. McConnell’s Corporate Immunity Bill Will Cost Lives and Prolong Pandemic
  2. Senate Republicans Want to Let Corporations Get Away With Murder
  3. Column: In GOP Plan, You Can’t Sue Your Employers for Giving You COVID — but They Can Sue You

Contact Trillium Chang at trichang ‘at’ and Will Setrakian at willsetrakian ‘at’

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