On June 18, 2020, Governor Reynolds signed the "COVID-19 Response and Back-to-Business Limited Liability Act" (the Act). In an agreeable nod to Iowa business owners, this new state law requires that people seeking to file a civil action related to COVID-19 exposure will need to demonstrate they meet specific requirements. In short, these requirements create a higher threshold for individuals that wants to bring a claim based on COVID-19. The Act is retroactive to incidents since January 1, 2020.
As COVID-19 continues to impact businesses across the state, it's important Iowa employers, property owners, and health care providers understand the risks associated with the virus and what smart steps to take toward protecting individual and economic health, safety, and financial stability.
Plaintiffs Need to Demonstrate "Actual Injury"
In Iowa Code Section 686D.3, the Act requires that a potential plaintiff must demonstrate one of the three following situations occurred, before they can file or maintain a civil action alleging actual or potential exposure to COVID019.
- The plaintiff was hospitalized or died due to COVID-19.
- The defendant acted with the intent of causing the plaintiff harm.
- The defendant acted with actual malice, which is the ill-will, hatred, or desire to do the plaintiff harm.
If the plaintiff cannot establish that one of these three situations occurred, the lawsuit will be subject to dismissal because the plaintiff failed to state a viable claim.
Property Owner Protection
The Act provides, in Iowa Code Section 686D.4, that an entity or person who "possesses or is in control" of real property is shielded from liability on most claims related to COVID-19 exposure. Real property is best thought of as any real estate, such as farmland and residential homes, in addition to commercial and public business properties.
The definition of who is "in control" of property is broader than whoever owns the property outright; it can also include tenants and occupants. So, employers who control their property—regardless of whether they simply occupy, lease, or own outright—would be covered by this Section.
To overcome this statutory property owner protection, a plaintiff must demonstrate that the person or entity in possession or control of the property did one of the following:
- Recklessly disregarded a substantial and unnecessary risk that others would be exposed to COVID-19.
- Exposed an individual to COVID-19 through conduct constituting actual malice.
- Intentionally exposed an individual to COVID-19.
Liability of Health Care Providers (Iowa Code § 686D.6)
Similar to property owners, the Act also specifically protects health care providers. Under Iowa Code Section 686D.6 health care providers will not be held liable for causing or contributing to the death or injury of an individual as a result of the provider's acts or omissions while providing health care "in support of the state's response to COVID-19."
The following are some situations for which a provider cannot be held liable:
- Prescribing a pharmaceutical for off-label use to treat a COVID-19 patient.
- Delaying treatment to a non-COVID-19 patient in response to federal or state guidance.
- Diagnosing or treating patients outside the normal scope of the provider's practice.
- Using medical devices for unapproved use.
- Conducting tests or providing treatment outside of a health care facility.
- Acts or omissions because of a lack of staffing, facilities, medical devices, equipment, supplies, or other resources that prevents the provider from providing the level of care that otherwise would have been required absent COVID-19.
- Acts or omissions of a provider relating to the use or nonuse of personal protective equipment (PPE).
Providers should, however, be aware this Act does not protect the acts or omissions related to reckless or willful misconduct.
Comply with Guidance and Regulations for Safe Harbor Defense
Through Iowa Code Section 686D.5, the Act provides a safe harbor defense for businesses and individuals against lawsuits if certain standards are met. If a business or person can show their conduct was substantially compliant or consistent with COVID-19-related policies and regulations, then they will not be held liable for any injuries sustained from actual or potential exposure to COVID-19.
When evaluating whether a safe harbor defense is available, defendants should look to federal or state statutes, regulations, orders, or public health guidance related to COVID-19 applicable at the time the alleged exposure occurred.
What About Workers' Compensation?
Employees may still be able to bring employment-related claims associated with actual or potential COVID-19 exposure. The Act does not impact workers' compensation claims or claims that arise under other employment laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act or the Family Medical Leave Act.
Bradley & Riley, P.C. will continue to keep clients informed on additional laws and policies related to COVID-19 and effective risk management. Please contact Mitchell Plimmer at email@example.com or 319-861-8703 with any questions.