On September 14, 2020, Governor DeWine signed Ohio Amended Substitute House Bill 606 (“H.B. 606”) affirming the Ohio Legislature’s extension of qualified civil immunity for COVID-19-related claims. H.B. 606 specifically expands Ohio qualified civil immunity provisions and precludes civil lawsuits for “injury, death, or loss to person or property” when the cause of action is based (in whole or in part) on exposure to, transmission or contraction of COVID-19, or a mutated form of the virus. The Legislature’s extension of this qualified civil immunity is specifically applicable to lawsuits against schools as well as state institutions of higher learning, governmental, religious, for-profit, and nonprofit entities.
Throughout H.B. 606, the Ohio Legislature made clear that it is aware of the unprecedented uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 as well as the numerous lawsuits already filed across the country alleging tort liability related to COVID-19. It also points out that business owners have not historically been required to keep members of the public from being exposed to airborne viruses, bacteria, and germs. The Ohio Legislature also reiterated through H.B. 606 that orders and recommendations from the Ohio Executive Branch, counties and local municipalities, boards of health and other agencies, do not create any new legal duties for purposes of tort liability. Such orders and recommendations are presumed to be irrelevant to the issue of the existence of a duty or to a breach of a duty and are inadmissible at trial to establish proof of a duty or breach of a duty in tort actions.
Like other immunity laws, H.B. 606 does not extend immunity to reckless conduct, intentional misconduct or to willful or wanton misconduct on the part of a school, state institution of higher learning, governmental, religious, for-profit or nonprofit entity related to COVID-19. Therefore, liability may still be found for claims related to conduct by a school (or other named entity) that is indifferent to the consequences, or disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk causing an exposure, transmission or contraction of COVID-19 (or a mutation of the virus).
The qualified civil immunity created by H.B. 606, as applied to claims related to COVID-19, is retroactive to March 9, 2020, when Governor DeWine issued a state of emergency, and will continue through September 30, 2021. While this immunity provides substantial relief to Ohio schools and businesses, both are encouraged to continue to seek guidance from legal counsel on areas of potential liability as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve, particularly as the immunity afforded under H.B. 606 is not absolute.