On February 25, 2021, Governor Evers signed 2021 Wisconsin Act 4, which became effective as of February 27, 2021. In general, the new law takes a step toward modernizing Wisconsin’s unemployment system after more than a decade with no upgrades. In addition, the legislature took the opportunity to attach language as it relates to immunity for civil liability for COVID-19 exposure.
The immunity-related language reflects compromises that were struck between the Evers administration and the legislature. Included in the new legislation is limited liability protection for businesses, schools, and churches when someone has been exposed to and contracted COVID-19. Now, the new legislation imposes a reckless standard on all claims for coronavirus exposure dating back to March 1, 2020.
Without the passage of this bill, a person who could prove that they were exposed to and contracted COVID-19 could theoretically pursue civil litigation for the negligence of the entity from where the person contracted the virus. In order to bring such a claim, the exposed individual would also need to prove that a particular exposure caused them to contract the virus. Typically, such causation parts of a claim require a medical expert to tie them together.
Now, with this so-called “liability shield,” an individual may only pursue a claim for damages for exposure if the entity was more than negligent. That is, a person will have to prove that the entity was reckless or otherwise intentionally disregarded the rights of the person who is exposed. The inflicted person will still have to prove, likely with a medical expert, that a particular exposure caused the person to get the virus.
The new legislation was passed despite there being no exposure cases filed in Wisconsin as of the time of the bill’s passing (according to services that track such litigation). Outside of Wisconsin, there have been cases pursued against meatpacking plants and cruise lines.