House committee clears bill to expand lawsuits against employers

The House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday passed a bill that opponents say will lead to increased civil litigation against employers. 

At issue was HB 2043, a bill sponsored by state Rep. Quang Nguyen, R-Prescott, which would allow an employee to recover no less than $500,000 if their employer denied a religious exemption and required the employee to receive a Covid-19 vaccination as a condition of their employment and the person suffered a significant injury.

A representative of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce & Industry says the state’s workers’ compensation system already offers employees an avenue to address claims against employers, while existing state and federal statutes protect against religious discrimination.  According to bill opponents, Nguyen’s legislation risks encouraging more civil lawsuits.

“We are opposed to this or any other legislation that would provide for a private right of action outside of the workers’ compensation program,” Chamber Vice President of Government Affairs Courtney Coolidge said. “Legislation that provides a new way to sue businesses is a step backwards.”

Mike Huckins, vice president of public affairs for the Greater Phoenix Chamber, agreed, saying the legislation contradicted legislation passed into law last year intended to limit pandemic-related liability. 

“The bill passed last year was reasonable and a model for the country and we should be proud of it,” Huckins said. “Businesses are each individually doing the best they can to protect their employees.”

But Rep. Nguyen disagreed.

“This is not about whether you should take the vaccine or not,” Nguyen said. “There is no one in this room or in the business community that is going to tell me what goes in my body, what goes on with my soul, and how legitimate my religion is.”

Tom Savage, testifying on behalf of the League of Arizona Cities and Towns, said the bill’s attempt to link the denial of a religious belief and a potential adverse health outcome was unclear.

“The bill is confusing (in) that it tends to relate the two,” Savage said. “Religious exemption is not related to the potential health concerns from Covid-19 vaccines.”

Barbara Jennings testified in favor of the bill. 

“I think this bill is so important because right now we lack anything to protect employees,” Jennings said. “We see now that these jabs make no difference. People will never feel the pain if they are not held accountable.”

According to the Arizona Department of Health Services, the unvaccinated are 17.5 times more likely to be hospitalized and 31.1 times more likely to die from Covid-19 than the fully vaccinated. 

HB 2043 and bills like it this legislative session sponsored by Republicans have resulted in strange political bedfellows, with Republicans siding with interest groups and activists that traditionally advocate for greater governmental control over workplace policies. 

The American Tort Reform Association, the nation’s leading civil justice reform group, has noted the flip-flop by lawmakers who are usually resistant to efforts to create new avenues to litigation.

“Conservative lawmakers traditionally oppose such liability-expanding initiatives, but in this case they’re leading the charge,” ATRA President Tiger Joyce wrote in an opinion column in The Wall Street Journal. “It’s regrettable to see past proponents of civil-justice reform take such a turn. America is already litigious enough.”

The U.S. Supreme Court earlier this month blocked an attempt by the Biden administration to require employers of 100 more employees to require their employees to be vaccinated or be subjected to regular testing. Facing long odds of success in the lower courts if the administration were to continue to press its case, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration on Monday withdrew its proposed rule.

“Just as we didn’t want the federal government to tell employers how to run their businesses, we don’t want state government to tell employers what their policies ought to be, either,” Coolidge said.

The bill passed 5-4, with all of the committee Republicans supporting the bill and all the Democrats opposing.

Groups opposing the bill included the state chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, Arizona Academy Of Family Physicians, the Health System Alliance of Arizona, the Arizona Lodging and Tourism Association, and chambers of commerce from across the Valley and Flagstaff.

The bill heads to the Rules Committee and will then be considered by each party’s caucus before it’s taken up by the full House of Representatives.

Taylor Hersch

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